Reid Hopes to Pass LGBT Workplace Protections

The next civil rights fight heads to the Senate.

Members of GetEQUAL, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization, stage a protest on Capitol Hill May 20, 2010, in Washington, DC.
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The search is on for one last senator to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from workplace discrimination.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will bring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the Senate floor for the first time in 17 years next week, a statistic that both awes and infuriates advocates who say the vote is long overdue.

"People realize this is the next big civil rights step in America," says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "It is a historic step forward."

The legislation would make it illegal for employers to fire workers based on their sexual orientation. Already nearly two dozen states have workplace protections for gay and transgender workers, and 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have embraced their own guidelines to protect workers. But the federal government has no such blanket protection for workers.

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Reid will need 60 votes to overcome a procedural vote and so far he has 59 senators, all the Democrats as well as Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

That is where the advocates are working around the clock.

LGBT rights groups are targeting a handful of GOP senators who they believe can be swayed to vote 'yes' on ENDA.

Among their targets is Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who came out in support of gay marriage after announcing publicly his own son, Will, was gay.

Friday, Portman told reporters during a conference call that he agreed with the "basic principle of ENDA," but still harbored concerns about whether the legislation included a broad enough exception for religious institutions.

"I don't think that any of my constituents ought to be able to be fired because he or she is gay," Portman said according to a report from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Gay rights groups are also courting Republican Sens Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. , who both hail from swing states where gay rights have broader state-wide support.

"In order for the Republican Party to be able to stay competitive with younger voters, this is an issue where it would be very wise to support workplace protections for LGBT Americans," says Tico Almeida, the founder of Freedom to Work, a national LGBT organization.

[READ: Don't Expect Sen. Booker to Be in the Spotlight]

Almeida's organization has also targeted Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake through a phone banking campaign. And in October, the Human Rights Campaign, another LGBT advocacy group, commissioned McCain's wife Cindy McCain to sign a postcard to senators advocating for ENDA's passage in Congress.

Across the country, ENDA enjoys high public volumes of public support with 81 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans embracing the law.

But even if ENDA passes in the Senate, experts predict the law will get buried in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

"There is no way you will get a Republican majority to bring this up for a vote in the House," says Patrick Egan, an LGBT policy expert at New York University. "This is a party whose primary coalition is explicitly against expanding rights for gay people."

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