WASHINGTON — The Senate moved forward Tuesday on the first major bill barring workplace discrimination against gays in nearly two decades as Americans' shifting views about homosexuality have significantly changed the political dynamic.
The progress welcomed by gay rights advocates stood in contrast to the strong opposition from conservative groups who challenge legislation based on sexuality and House Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who insists that the bill would lead to costly, frivolous lawsuits and undermine job creation.
Boehner's longstanding opposition cast doubt on whether the House will even vote on the bill in the remaining weeks of the year. That drew criticism from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"Coming from the man whose caucus spent $3 million in taxpayer dollars defending the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage law in court, that's pretty rich," said Reid, who cited a Government Accountability Office study that found few lawsuits in states with discrimination laws.
Aside from statements critical of the bill, Republicans opponents have remained relatively mum. No GOP senator has spoken in opposition during more than a day of debate and prior to Monday night's procedural vote, no word of disagreement was uttered.
Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have remained neutral on the issue.
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., were crafting amendments to the bill dealing with religious exemptions.
Seven Republicans and 54 Democrats stood together Monday and cleared the bill past its first hurdle on a 61-30 vote, setting the stage for possible passage by week's end. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
The legislation, the first significant gay rights bill since Congress ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military in 2010, faces strong opposition in the House, with Boehner rejecting the measure.
Final passage would cap a 17-year quest to secure Senate support for a similar discrimination measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, the law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
"I think back to Martin Luther King's commentary that the great arc of the universe bends toward justice and I feel that our notion of fairness about employment, how central that is to pursuit of happiness, how central it is to equality, how central it is to the golden rule ... means that we will accomplish this," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a chief sponsor of the bill. "But I do hope it's sooner rather than later."
Americans have displayed a greater acceptance of homosexuality while Republicans, who struggled to win over young people and independents in the 2012 presidential election, have searched for supporters beyond their core base of older voters. The Supreme Court in June affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples while same-sex marriage is legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
A Pew Research survey in June found that more Americans said homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent. Opinions were more evenly divided 10 years ago.
About a half hour after the Senate acted, President Barack Obama cited the vote as an example of "common sense starting to prevail" in a Congress that has opposed much of his agenda.
"Inexorably, the idea of a more tolerant, more prosperous country that offers more opportunity to more people, that's an idea that the vast majority of Americans believe in," the president told a group of supporters gathered for a summit in Washington Monday night.
In Maine, six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, said he was gay and questioned whether it still mattered to voters, a stark reminder of changing views, lingering resistance to homosexuality and uncertainty about the political implications.
"Attitudes are changing very rapidly on gay rights issues and we're seeing that with each passing day. More and more people have embraced equality," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a sponsor of the measure.
The three potential Republican presidential candidates -- Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky -- voted against, a reflection that among core GOP conservative voters opposition to gay rights remains strong.
Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said in a statement that he was disappointed in the Senate vote, but "confident that the U.S. House of Representatives will ultimately reject ENDA because it not only threatens the free market but religious liberties as well."
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion. The bill would exempt religious institutions and the military.