Heller provides key vote for LGBT nondiscrimination bill

WASHINGTON — A bill to ban workplace discrimination against gay people, lesbians and bisexuals cleared a major hurdle in the Senate with a boost from Sen. Dean Heller.

As a House member in 2007, Heller voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But hours before a key procedural vote in the Senate on Monday the Nevada Republican announced he would vote for it this time.

“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,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had been pushing for Senate passage of the measure considered a major priority of gay rights advocates. The so-called ENDA bill was described as the most significant civil rights measure in years.

“It is time for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all Americans — regardless of where they live — can go to work unafraid to be themselves,” Reid said in a speech before the vote. “As long as hardworking, qualified Americans can be denied job opportunities, fired or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, all workers are at risk.”

Heller became the 60th senator to come out for the measure, ensuring it could overcome an filibuster. It ended up clearing a procedural vote on Monday by a 61-30 margin. Final passage was expected in a few days.

Heller’s announcement marked the second time he provided a key 60th vote to move forward with a high-profile bill. In 2012 he backed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that expanded and funded laws to combat domestic violence.

Think Progress, a liberal advocacy blog, last year called Heller “a total zero” on equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals.

But this year Heller was viewed as a senator who might support the ENDA bill, and he was applauded. Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, a gay rights advocacy group, said the Nevadan was “standing on the right side of history by voting to protect LGBT Americans from workplace harassment and discrimination.”

In Heller’s view, Nevada had changed. In 2011, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law state bils to prohibit discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment based on gender identity. Twenty-three states have similar laws.

“Under the leadership of this governor, as well as the legislature over the past several years, Nevada has established a solid foundation of anti-discrimination laws,” Heller said.

“This legislation 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,” he said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter