As US legislators return to work in Washington today, gay rights activists are hopeful that hate crimes and workplace protection legislation will move forward in the coming session.

The Democrats are in control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

While politics watchers are immersed in the Presidential campaigns, elections for all of the House and a third of the Senate will be held in November.

Progress is expected on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Act.

The proposed new federal law was named after the murdered gay teenager who brought the issue of hate crimes into the American consciousness.

Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence in freezing Wyoming in 1998.

He was the victim of a hate crime, targeted because he was gay, and his story inspired legislators from both sides to try to bring forward new laws.

The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3rd 2007 by 237 to 180.

In September an attempt during the last session to tack the hate crimes bill onto a military spending bill in the Senate was successful.

The White House has indicated that President Bush may veto the Department of Defence bill if it is presented to him with the hate crimes legislation attached.

The proposed legislation would strengthen the ability of federal, state and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on race, religion, colour, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.

It would also enable the US Justice Department to assist in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.

The bill would also provide grants to help state and local governments meet the extraordinary expenses involved in hate crime cases.

According to the FBI, sexual orientation bias motivated 14% of such crimes in 2005.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has proven extremely controversial, and has yet to be passed by the Senate.

In November it was passed by the House by 235 to 184.

35 Republicans joined 200 Democrats and voted for the bill.

159 Republicans were joined in voting against by 25 Democrats, many of whom were angry that protections for trans people had been removed.

ENDA, which would make it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or promote a person based on sexual orientation, has not yet been voted on in the Senate.

The decision to remove trans people from the scope of the legislation caused anger among the LGBT community in the US, with many demanding an “all or nothing” stance on ENDA.

The White House has already indicated that the President will veto ENDA if it makes it through the Senate.

Many of the House Democrats elected for the first time in November 2006 did not want ENDA to include protections for trans people, fearful of a backlash from conservatives.

Is was the first time since 1994 that legislation that protects LGB people at work had been brought to the House.

Pioneering rights activists first tried to pass similar laws in 1974.

“History teaches us that progress on civil rights is never easy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after it passed.

“It is often marked by small and difficult steps.”

ENDA’s supporters in the Senate will need the votes of 60 of the 100 Senators rather than a simple majority to overcome expected Republican attempts to kill the legislation.

Currently 17 states have protections for LGB people; eight of those states extend that protection to trans people.

In 1996 similar legislation failed in the Senate by one vote.

87% of the top Fortune 500 companies in the US already provide protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The US military and religious organisations are excluded from the legislation, which also does not force employers to extend benefits to same-sex partners.

The House of Representatives reconvenes today while the Senate does not resume business until next Tuesday.