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House Dems overcome GOP opposition, pass 'Equality Act'

A bill to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity passed the House. The Senate is a problem.
David Cicilline
Rep. David Cicilline leaves the House Democratic Caucus leadership elections at the Capitol on Nov. 28, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Two years ago, the Democratic-led House passed a sweeping bill to protect LGBTQ Americans against discrimination, only to have the "Equality Act" stall soon after. The Republican-led Senate and Republican-led White House opposed the measure, leaving it to wither on the vine.

The political winds have since shifted, and Democrats are still eager to advance this key legislative priority, which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The House on Thursday passed the Equality Act, a landmark LGBTQ rights bill that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous arenas, including employment, housing, education, public accommodations, credit and jury service.

“The LGBTQ community has waited long enough,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who introduced the bill, said on the House floor. “The time has come to extend the blessings of liberty and equality to all Americans, regardless of who they are or who they love.”

The final vote was 224 to 206, with every House Democrat voting in the majority, along with three House Republicans: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), John Katko (R-N.Y.), and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.).

Interestingly enough, this reflects a step backwards for the House GOP: two years ago, eight Republicans voted for the Equality Act. Some of those eight are no longer in Congress, but two of them -- New York's Elise Stefanik and Florida's Mario Diaz-Balart -- apparently changed their minds about the bill, voting against it yesterday after having voted for it in 2019.

So, what happens now? President Joe Biden issued a statement this week announcing his enthusiastic support for the legislation, but before he could sign it, the Equality Act would need to clear the Senate -- and as is usually the case, that's likely to be a problem. NPR had a good report this week on the state of play and the need for 60 votes in the upper chamber.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins cosponsored the bill in 2019, but not all of her fellow, more moderate Republicans are on board. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for example, told the Washington Blade that he won't support the act, citing religious liberty.... It's uncertain how other moderate Republicans might vote. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who supported the narrower Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) in 2013, has yet to respond to NPR's questions about her support of the Equality Act. And while Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who likewise supported ENDA, didn't give a definitive answer on his support, his response made it clear that he could object to it on religious grounds.

For what it's worth, the Senate's more conservative Democrats -- West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema -- have expressed support for the Equality Act.

They remain opposed, however, to reforming the filibuster rules, which in turn would allow it to pass.