* Gay rights issue divides Republicans
* Critics call bill a federal intrusion
By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, Nov 7 The Democratic-led U.S.
Senate, reflecting a big shift in public opinion the past
decade, passed a bill on Thursday to outlaw discrimination
against gay workers. But the measure faces an uphill fight in
the Republican-led House of Representatives.
The bill cleared the Senate 64-32, with 10 Republicans
joining 52 Democrats and two independents in voting "yes."
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 is the latest
battleground in an ideological struggle within the Republican
Party. An increasing number of Republicans support gay rights,
but conservative groups threaten to challenge many of those who
support the White House-backed bill.
Critics complain that the legislation represents an
unwarranted federal intrusion in the workplace that would force
employers to violate their religious beliefs in hiring.
"I oppose discrimination of any kind, and that
includes discrimination of individuals or institutions for their
faith and values," said Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana.
Backers of the bill say it would allow people to love whom
they choose without the fear of losing their job.
"Passing this legislation is about freedom," said Democratic
Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a bill sponsor who last year
became the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.
Unlike a decade ago, when gay rights was a "wedge-issue"
used to rally conservative voters, most Americans, including
most Republicans, now support gay rights, polls show.
Senate passage of the non-discrimination bill came 19 years
after such legislation was first introduced in Congress.
"This is a historic victory and shows that the country is
moving forward," said Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick
Durbin of Illinois.
But House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in
Congress, has declared his opposition, expressing fear the
measure would trigger lawsuits that would hurt businesses and
Backers of the legislation reject concerns about lawsuits,
noting that it has not been a problem for states that have
adopted similar laws in recent years.
The Senate bill would ban workplace discrimination based on
sexual orientation or gender identity. Existing federal law
already prohibits discrimination based on race, religion,
gender, national origin, age, and disability.
As of April, 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies already had
non-discrimination policies for sexual orientation, and 57
percent had such policies for gender identity, according to the
Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization for
gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.
At this point, there are no plans to bring the Senate bill
up for a House vote, but Republican leaders will face pressure
to do so, including from members of their own party.
A number of Republican strategists are convinced that their
party must embrace gay rights for its own political good.
"It's largely a generational thing," said one party
strategist. "Younger Republicans see no reason to discriminate
against gays. They have friends who are gay."
Regardless, this strategist, asking not to be identified by
name, said he expects Boehner to stand firm against the bill,
reflecting the sentiment of older fellow House conservatives.
"Eventually the bill will pass the House. But not this
year," the strategist said.
The Human Rights Campaign is part of a coalition seeking
passage. Others include Project Right Side, a gay rights group
founded by Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican
Party, and TargetPoint Consulting, a Republican polling firm.
Alex Lundry, TargetPoint's chief data scientist, said over
the past 10 years support for gay rights has risen in every
"Americans are ready for this to happen," Lundry said.
Fred Sainz, an HRC vice president, said his group helped win
over eight senators, Democrats and Republicans, with campaigns
in seven states, and now will focus on House members.
"It's our job to make it happen," Sainz said.
HRC President Chad Griffin, on a visit to the Capitol for
the Senate vote, tweeted: "Note to Speaker Boehner: Turn on
C-Span 2 (the TV station that covers the Senate). This is what
democracy looks like."
It is unclear how the battle will unfold in the 435-member
House. A total of 193 House members, including five Republicans,
have signed onto the legislation. Twenty-five more are needed to
reach 218, the simple majority required for passage.
Backers may try to force a vote by signing a petition or by
offering the bill as an amendment to must-pass legislation, such
as a defense spending bill.