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ENDA Could Ride Gay Rights Wave

A Senate bill to end job discrimination against gays could get a boost from the Supreme Court’s Wednesday decisions on same-sex marriage.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act already has more than 50 Senate supporters and is set for its first committee test vote next month. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., committed Wednesday to full Senate action.

“The fight for equality continues. I will soon bring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the floor of the Senate for a vote,” Reid tweeted.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley cited the high court’s historic rulings to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s gay-marriage ban as a beginning to an even larger legislative battle on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

“We need to make this year the year that ENDA is passed. We now have [52] co-sponsors and a lot of momentum so let’s make this year not only the year in which the fed[eral] government recognizes all marriage but also the year in which we ban discrimination for all LGBT Americans,” the Oregon Democrat said as he stood in front of the Supreme Court Wednesday.

ENDA, which would expand anti-discrimination laws to gays and lesbians, is scheduled for a July 10 markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Besides Merkley, the legislation’s 52 co-sponsors include all but three Senate Democrats. Two Republicans, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine, have signed on to the bill. The three Democratic holdouts are Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

Gay rights supporters hope that the continuing shift in social attitudes and in the law regarding the LGBT community could help open a pathway for ENDA, at least in the Senate. The HELP Committee is likely to approve the bill, but passing it out of the full Senate will still be difficult and getting a gay rights measure moved in the GOP-controlled House is even more unlikely.

The question facing backers of the bill, however, is how many Republican senators they can pick off to get the 60 votes needed to break a likely filibuster of the legislation. Of particular note is Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who was the first GOP senator to support gay marriage but who has indicated he would not support ENDA as it is currently written.

On Wednesday, Portman issued a tepid statement to reporters, by request, in response to the Supreme Court decision to overturn DOMA.

“The Supreme Court ruled today on an issue that is important to me and millions of Americans. Although I would have preferred to see Section 3 of DOMA repealed by Congress rather than by judicial edict, the most important consequence of today’s ruling is something I agree with: Section 3 should be repealed because marriage laws should remain in the hands of the states, where they have been since the beginning of the Republic,” the statement read. “People of good faith differ on the marriage issue. I believe that gay couples deserve the opportunity to marry, but I believe change should come about through the democratic process in the states, through the process of citizen persuading fellow citizen that civil marriage should be allowed.”

On ENDA specifically, Portman spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn issued a statement consistent with earlier comments from the senator’s office: “Senator Portman is strongly opposed to discrimination and is looking at proposals to address it. He is concerned about excessive reliance on litigation as a tool for social change, but he has not studied the most recent version of ENDA.”

Other Republican senators to watch could be Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Murkowski was one of the few Republicans to release a statement of support in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday, but she has not yet committed to ENDA: “I welcome today’s Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act because the federal government should empower households, respect the decisions of states and otherwise get out of the way. This ruling represents victories for states’ rights and equal treatment under the law.”

Flake voted in favor of ENDA as a member of the House in 2007, but he told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that he has not yet reviewed the current ENDA legislation and so does not know whether he could support the bill.

It’s also unclear whether supporters will get the final three Democrats on board, with Pryor facing a tough 2014 re-election. Pryor also is one of the few remaining Democrats in Congress to oppose gay marriage.

With many politicians, including President Barack Obama, saying their views “evolved” on the issue, ENDA supporters need several more lawmakers to adopt that position before the measure will be a viable.

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