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ENDA passage in the Senate could come down to Ohio Republican Rob Portman

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The battle to win U.S. Senate passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is all coming down to Ohio’s Rob Portman.

Although its fate in the U.S. House is bleak, supporters say they have 59 of the 60 Senate votes needed to pass the measure over opponents’ parliamentary maneuvers.

Rob Portman
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

Still on the fence: Portman, a Republican who bucked his base when he announced his support for marriage equality in March but has yet to say where he stands on the bill that would protect Americans from getting fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Rob Young, a Human Rights Campaign organizer who has been running a Columbus-based campaign since September to win Portman’s support, said he expects there won’t be an announcement from the senator until it’s time to vote. HRC said yesterday that it expects the vote on ENDA to come next week.

Portman’s latest statements — described by different publications either as undecided, “wavering” or leaning toward the bill — no doubt give both sides hope.

On Wednesday, he told the Washington website Politico that he’s still undecided but concerned about how the bill would affect religious freedom.

On the other hand, when Politico asked him whether it would be hard to oppose an anti-discrimination bill after backing marriage rights, he said: “I have always strongly believed that we should not discriminate against people based on who they are. In other words, because one of my constituents was gay, he or she should not be fired. And I’m fine with that.”

The Washington Post counts Portman among four Republicans considered as potential ENDA supporters. The others are Sens. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte of new Hampshire and Dean Heller of Nevada.

In an interview with the Post, he again brought up the religious-liberty concern and said he worries as well about whether an expanded anti-discrimination law would cause more lawsuits.

“There are legitimate reasons for Republicans not to want to support this particular bill,” he said.

Then again, Portman also cited a recent report that found no problems in states with similar laws.

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On Tuesday, Portman told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he has concerns about religious freedom, although the bill exempts churches and church-affiliated schools and businesses.

Then again, he said: “I am inclined to support it, anyway.”

The Ohio campaign continues with phone banks in Columbus and Cleveland, as well as efforts to collect supporters’ signatures on 10,000 post cards to be delivered to Portman’s office. HRC, Equality Ohio, other LGBT-rights groups and organized labor are part of the effort by a coalition called Americans for Workplace Opportunity.

Ohio’s senior senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, is a longtime supporter of ENDA.

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