By Jonathan Tamari

WASHINGTON –Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) voted Monday night to advance a bill to ban workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals after an intense lobbying effort and only once the measure had received the 60 votes needed to clear a key procedural hurdle.

Toomey cast the 61st vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but said he hopes to amend the measure as it proceeds toward a final Senate vote this week. He plans to offer a change to give more protections to religious groups.

"I have long believed that more legal protections are appropriate to prevent employment discrimination based on sexual orientation," Toomey said in a news release after the vote. "So I believe the Employment Non-Discrimination Act contains very important provisions.  However, I also believe it should be improved, especially as it pertains to religious organizations.  We must strive to reach the appropriate balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom. I voted to move forward with debate on ENDA with the hope that the Senate will take up amendments – including one that I plan to offer – to address this important aspect of the proposed law."

The measure is considered the most significant gay-rights legislation to advance in the Senate years. Gay-rights groups have long pressed for its passage. Local Democratic Sens. Bob Casey, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez all voted in favor of the measure.

Toomey was the subject of a pressure campaign by liberal groups, gay rights organizations and labor unions in the days leading up to the high-profile vote Monday, but he waited to cast his vote as the measure stood on the brink of advancing.

Toomey declined an interview request immediately after the vote. He referred instead to his statement.

Supporters had secured the support of the 60 senators needed to advance the measure, but some "yes" votes were absent Monday night, leaving sponsors to lobby swing-vote Republicans for more backing.

With 59 votes cast in favor of the measure, intense lobbying began in the Republican cloak room, off the Senate floor. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) spoke to Toomey and Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) as the bill stood one vote short of advancing.

Eventually Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) joined the fray, which grew so large it spilled from the side room onto the Senate floor, providing a rare public view of the backroom haggling on a politically charged measure.

After a long wait, Portman and Toomey walked out to cast their votes. Portman, who has a gay son and has said he would support same-sex marriage, cast the critical 60th vote. Right behind him, Toomey voted yes as well.

"Sen. Toomey stood on the right side of history and against workplace discrimination," said a release from Equality PA executive director Ted Martin.

Toomey's vote, however, does not mean he will necessarily support final passage of the measure. A final Senate vote is expected later this week – though the bill faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled House.

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