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Republican support pushes gay rights bill closer to Senate passage

WASHINGTON -- A gay rights bill appears set to overcome a key Senate hurdle Monday, after a fifth Republican expressed support for the measure to prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said Monday that voting for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act "is the right thing to do" and that discrimination "must not be tolerated under any circumstance."

The Senate will hold a procedural vote Monday night on what will be the first major gay rights bill debated in Congress since the vote in 2010 to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy barring gays from serving openly in the military.

Under current federal law, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability. Only 21 states and the District of Columbia extend that prohibition to sexual orientation, while 16 states and the District of Columbia include gender identity.

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Democrats secured the full vote of its 55-member caucus last week when Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) announced their support. Newly sworn-in Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey said it would be the first bill he would co-sponsor.

Three Republicans -- Mark Kirk (Ill.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) -- had already voted for the measure when it was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July. Maine's Susan Collins, a Republican, was an original co-sponsor.

A similar bill failed to pass the Senate in 1996. None have been taken up on the floor since. In 2007, the Democratic-controlled House passed a version of the bill that did not include the provision for transgender individuals.

It appears unlikely now that a House with a Republican majority would act to follow the Senate. A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said it would open small businesses to "frivolous litigation" and hurt the economy. Advocates are calling on him to reconsider.

"The Speaker, of all people, should certainly know what it's like to go to work every day afraid of being fired," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. "Instead of letting the far right trample him again, it's time for Speaker Boehner to stand with the majority of everyday Republican voters."

President Obama, who called for equal treatment of gays and lesbians in his inaugural address in January, reaffirmed his support Sunday and noted that a majority of Fortune 500 companies already have nondiscrimination policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.

"Millions of LGBT Americans go to work every day fearing that, without any warning, they could lose their jobs -- not because of anything they've done, but simply because of who they are," he wrote for the Huffington Post. "It's offensive. It's wrong. And it needs to stop, because in the United States of America, who you are and who you love should never be a fireable offense."

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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