U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) was not considered a likely vote of support for the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But in last-minute negotiations with bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), in a Senate cloakroom, Toomey and two other legislators agreed to back the bill. In exchange, Merkley reportedly promised to have their amendments on exemptions for religious employers brought to a vote.
Toomey joined Senate Democrats and six other Republican senators voting to move the bill forward with a procedural motion.
“We must strive to reach the appropriate balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom,” Toomey said in a statement.
The substance of Toomey’s amendment is still under revision.
Amanda Terkel, a senior political reporter for the Huffington Post and former deputy research director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said she understood the proposal would potentially “gut” the ENDA legislation.
“Businesses, for example, who have an owner who may affiliate with a certain religion could essentially say that my business is a Christian business because I am Christian and therefore I don’t have to follow ENDA,” she explained.
Toomey’s office did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.
Fred Sainz, of gay rights advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, said the organization welcomed the Senator’s vote of support for the bill. Sainz said that given the religious exemptions already contained in the bill, the language of the Toomey amendment could be overly broad.
“Our concern is that this may go a step too far and bring in a broad swath of for-profit ventures,” said Sainz, who argues that for profit-businesses should be treated differently that a religious organization.
Toomey, a conservative, must manage his message carefully in the moderate state of Pennsylvania, said David Lublin, a professor of government at American University.
“Sen. Toomey has to balance that his primary constituency likely wants him to vote against any LGBT rights legislation but the general election constituency is increasingly favorable,” Lublin said.
Toomey’s amendment will require 60 votes for adoption, reports Politico.
In the end, any Senate bill could likely stall in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has said he would not bring it up for a vote.