Senate passage came in a momentous year for gay rights advocates. The Supreme Court in June granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, though it avoided a sweeping ruling that would have paved the way for same-sex unions nationwide. Illinois is on the verge of becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage along with the District of Columbia.
A Pew Research survey in June found that more Americans said homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent. Opinions were more evenly divided 10 years ago.
In the House, Boehner has maintained his longstanding opposition despite pleas from national Republicans for the GOP to broaden its appeal to a fast-changing demographic. Boehner argues that the bill is unnecessary and would touch off costly, meritless lawsuits for businesses.
President Barack Obama and Democrats used the progressive legislation piling up in the House as a cudgel on the GOP, with the gay rights bill likely to join the stalled measure to overhaul the immigration system.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said if the House fails to act, "they'll be sending their party straight to oblivion."
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois reminded Boehner of the history of his party in the 1880s over the issue of slavery and Abraham Lincoln's life work.
"Keep that proud Republican tradition alive," Durbin said.
Obama, in a statement, said "one party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do."
Gay rights advocates reminded Obama that he could act unilaterally and issue an executive order barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors. Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama is empowered to act and called on him to sign the executive order.