Invoking the Declaration of Independence, proponents of a bill that would outlaw discrimination against gays in the workplace argued on Tuesday that the measure is rooted in fundamental fairness for all Americans.
Republican opponents of the measure were largely silent, neither addressing the issue on the second day of Senate debate nor commenting unless asked. Written statements from some rendered their judgment that the bill would result in costly, frivolous lawsuits.
The Senate moved closer to completing its work on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said a final vote in the Senate is possible by week's end.
Senate passage of the bill would represent a major victory for advocates of gay rights just months after the Supreme Court affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples and three years after Congress ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Illinois and Hawaii were poised to become the 15th and 16th states to legalize gay marriage. The Illinois legislature gave its final approval Tuesday, sending the bill to the governor, who has said he'll sign it. The Hawaii Senate has passed a gay marriage measure that is expected to pass the state House within the week; the governor has said he'll sign it.
"I don't believe in discriminating against anybody," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, a backer of the measure who voted against a similar, narrower bill 17 years ago. Hatch said the bill has language ensuring religious freedom that he expects the Senate to toughen.
The measure, however, faces strong opposition in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio maintains that it is unnecessary and could prove too expensive and litigious for businesses.
Resistance remains within GOP ranks even as the national party, looking beyond core older voters, tries to be more inclusive. Republicans struggled to win over young people and independents in the 2012 presidential election.
Asked why he opposed the bill, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma said the measure is "somewhat pandering to the special groups that I think should not have to be singled out by themselves. I think they're normal citizens like everybody else."
A bipartisan group of senators pressed ahead with the legislation, casting it as a clear sign of Americans' greater acceptance of homosexuality that has significantly changed the political dynamic.
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.
"What changed is society has changed," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa. "Personal attitudes have changed, business is for it. There's just widespread support for taking these other steps in passing a civil rights bill."
About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.
"It's time to end this discrimination," Merkley said in a Senate speech. "It's certainly about the vision of the Declaration of Independence that has the promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as the founding motivation."
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said his home state of Connecticut has had a discrimination law since 1991 and frivolous lawsuits are uncommon. Based on the latest data from 2009 and 2010, 53 of 1,740 employment-based complaints were based on sexual orientation, Murphy said.
"Fifty years from now history is going to judge no less harshly those that voted against this act as it judges now those that voted against some of the civil rights acts of the 1950s and 1960s," Murphy said.
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.
Sens. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire were crafting an amendment to the bill that would prevent federal, state, and local governments from retaliating against religious groups that are exempt from the law.
"It focuses on religious liberty," Portman said. "It provides a non-retaliation clause in the federal law comparable to what a lot of states have."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania was working on an amendment to expand the number of groups that are covered under the religious exemption.
Portman, Ayotte and Toomey were the last three Republicans who voted Monday night to advance the bill as it past its first hurdle on a 61-30 vote. After the vote, Portman's son Will, a student at Yale, tweeted, "Go dad ... Sens Portman and Toomey vote yes. Cloture is reached on #ENDA."
The Ohio senator announced in March that he supports same-sex marriage, saying his views began changing in 2011, when his son told his parents he was gay and that it wasn't a choice but "part of who he was."
Portman said he exchanged messages with his son after the vote.