WASHINGTON -- Proponents of a gay rights bill gained crucial support in the Senate on Monday as a Nevada Republican announced he backed the measure because "discrimination must not be tolerated under any circumstance."
Hours before a test vote, Sen. Dean Heller expressed his support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, joining all 55 members of the Democratic majority and four other Republican senators. Heller's expected vote ensures that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will be able to collect the 60 votes necessary to move ahead on the legislation with the goal of passing it by week's end.
"After listening to Nevadans' concerns about this issue from a variety of viewpoints and after numerous conversations with my colleagues, I feel that supporting this legislation is the right thing to do," Heller said in a statement.
President Barack Obama called for Congress to pass the bill, the first major gay rights legislation since Congress voted to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military in December 2010.
In a message written for Huffingtonpost.com, Obama described employment discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender people as offensive and 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," the president said.
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers solely because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion.
The bill faces strong opposition from conservative groups and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, making prospects for House passage unlikely.
Reiterating Boehner's longstanding opposition, spokesman Michael Steel said Monday that Boehner "believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs."
The Faith and Freedom Coalition said in a statement Monday that the bill is "anti-family" and a threat to free enterprise, arguing that it will impose an additional burden on family-owned businesses with the possibility of costly litigation that will detract from job creation.
Ralph Reed, founder of the group, said the bill "will subject many employers of faith to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs or face stiff federal sanctions and exorbitant legal costs."
Heritage Action, which has considerable sway with Republican lawmakers, said on Friday that the bill would "severely undermine civil liberties ... and trample on religious liberty." The conservative organization called for a vote against the bill and said it would record the vote on its legislative scorecard.
The Senate vote would come five months after Supreme Court rulings affirming gay marriage and granting federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Four Republican senators have backed the legislation -- Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- and proponents expect a few others to support the measure.
Heller said in his statement that the bill "raises the federal standards to match what we have come to expect in Nevada, which is that discrimination must not be tolerated under any circumstance."
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, welcomed Heller's backing and contrasted that with Boehner's opposition.
"The Speaker, of all people, should certainly know what it's like to go to work every day afraid of being fired," Griffin said. "Instead of letting the far right trample him again, it's time for Speaker Boehner to stand with the majority of everyday Republican voters and support ENDA."
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.
About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have already adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains neutral on the bill, a spokeswoman said Monday.