After an almost 40-year effort for gay rights advocates, it took a Senate committee less than half an hour on Wednesday to pass a measure that would end workplace discrimination. The bill, widely considered to be the most significant step for equality after same-sex marriage, passed on a 15-7 vote without any major changes made to it, and with bipartisan support.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which bans employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, is now cleared to head to the full Senate, which has not taken up the measure since 1996.
Every Democrat on the 22-member Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee voted for the bill, along with three Republicans--Sens. Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski, and Orrin Hatch—who were all heavily lobbied in the lead-up to the vote.
"This is huge," said Tico Almeida, founder and president of the LGBT advocacy group Freedom to Work, to msnbc. "There hasn't ever been a version of this bill that included transgender coverage passed through committee in either the House or the Senate," he added. "And in 20 minutes!"
"Twenty minutes and 40 years," said Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL. She told msnbc that when Congress first saw legislation of this kind, it was 1974.
Both groups, along with Human Rights Campaign, have been very aggressive in their efforts to warm lawmakers to the bill. Most opposition hinges on whether it would force religious employers to compromise their views. But as with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—which bans employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin—ENDA contains an exemption for religious organizations.
"We talked a lot about the religious exemption with Sen. Hatch," who ended up voting for the bill on Wednesday, said Almeida. "Sen. Rand Paul introduced an amendment to broaden the exemption, but then he didn't show up for the committee hearing."
Sen. Paul did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his absence.
In fact, said Cronk, who was in the hearing room for Wednesday's vote, "there was no visible opposition" to the legislation. The Republicans who voted against it either did so by proxy or silently.
One disappointing "no" vote came from Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who has a recent history of siding with gay rights--such as voting to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the military's ban on openly gay troops. North Carolina, which Burr represents, is also home to big name companies that enforce workplace protections for LGBT employees and have lobbied in favor of ENDA.
The North Carolinian's 2016 re-election concerns in a state that has moved dramatically to the right likely influenced his vote, Almeida said. "Burr ignored what North Carolina's biggest employers asked him to do...I think he doesn't want a primary challenge."
Nevertheless, Wednesday's committee vote is an encouraging sign for the bill's prospects, at least in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who recently became a co-sponsor of the legislation and announced his niece is gay, intends to bring the bill to the floor "soon," a Senate source confirmed to Maddow Blog's Steven Benan.
Advocates are hoping they can get 60 to 70 votes in favor of the legislation to put pressure on the Republican-controlled House. Speaker John Boehner has said that he "hadn't thought much about" ENDA, and that there were already "ample laws" in place to deal with workplace discrimination.
Cronk said Wednesday's bipartisan vote will be a "huge help" in soliciting support from wavering lawmakers.
"We don't want to be passing equality bills on party lines," she said. "Equality isn't a partisan issue."
This story was updated at 5:29 p.m.