President Obama plans to sign an order banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees by companies that do business with the federal government, a long-sought goal of gay rights organizations.
After months of calling on Congress to pass a strong anti-discrimination law, Obama told his staff to come up with an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors, a White House official said Monday.
The measure will prohibit those firms from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The move would implement on a limited scale what the White House would like to see Congress pass into law for everyone to follow.
"This is consistent with the president's views that all Americans, LGBT or not, should be treated with dignity and respect," the official said.
Although several states have laws that ban discrimination against gays in the workplace, many do not. In those states, an employer can legally fire, demote or otherwise discriminate against a worker solely on grounds of sexual orientation.
Gay rights advocate say the executive order could provide employment protections for about 11 million workers who have none.
The order comes after years in which the president has called on Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and thereby make it unlawful for any employer to fire or censure a worker based on sexual orientation.
The measure has been approved by the Democratic-led Senate but hasn't advanced in the Republican-controlled House. The president has held back on taking executive action despite repeated calls from activists to move ahead with the executive order, a lack of action that had frustrated some supporters.
On Monday, administration officials began to give lawmakers word that Obama would use his executive power to expand existing protections that prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the lead Senate sponsor of the ENDA bill, praised the order for its intent to allow "millions more Americans to go to work empowered with the right to do their jobs free of harassment or discrimination."
The act comes a part of the president's 2014 plan that he calls the "year of action" strategy. He has vowed to use the power of his "pen and phone" to take action on matters where Congress doesn't share his vision.
It also comes as gay activists have emerged as an increasingly important part of the Democratic electoral coalition. Obama plans to appear at a Democratic LGBT fundraising gala as part of a trip to New York on Tuesday.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement on Monday that the proposed executive order "adds to the list of the LGBT community's accomplishments during the Obama administration and is cause for celebration." Democrats in Congress would continue to push for legislative action, she added.
Merkley quoted a favorite line of Obama's in his statement, saying that "with this announcement, the arc of history bends a little farther toward justice."