The Senate is expected to easily pass legislation designed to prevent discrimination based on genes, after a panel approved the measure Wednesday.

Members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee approved the bill (S 358), by Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, by 19-2. It would forbid health insurers and employers from requiring people to submit to genetic testing, or from using genetic information, to deny people insurance coverage, raise insurance premiums, or hire and fire workers.

Republican Sens. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma voted against the bill. Coburn warned the measure could have unintended consequences for doctors, hospitals, police and others.

The committee adopted an amendment, by Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., by voice vote that re-wrote the bill with technical changes and corrections.

Similar bills were passed in the Senate twice before, in 2005 and 2003, with no votes against either. But they were never considered in the Republican-controlled House, where opposition from business groups killed them.

Snowe says her bill would help reassure people who are concerned information from genetic marker tests for hereditary diseases could be used against them. She has said she was inspired by research showing that many women decline tests to possibly reveal a gene alteration that has been linked to breast cancer, fearing they will lose their health insurance if they test positive.

While Snowe and her allies, including Kennedy, say the legislation is a common-sense defense for workers, business lobbyists led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce see pitfalls. The Chamber says it’s too broad because it seeks to not only to punish employers for discrimination using genetic information, but for collecting the data in the first place.

Most states have outlawed genetic discrimination, according to the Chamber, and businesses fear that a new federal law would simply mean a new layer of regulation to contend with, as well as new opportunities for lawsuits. The Snowe-Kennedy bill would not pre-empt state laws.

This Congress, the Chamber’s only allies are conservative House Republicans, and they are now in the minority. At a hearing Jan. 30, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions — John Kline of Minnesota — urged House Democrats to proceed slowly.

Kline pointed out that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been involved in only one genetic discrimination lawsuit. “It bears noting that in the only recorded claim of genetic discrimination brought by the EEOC of which I am aware, the matter was settled quickly and efficiently,” he said.

In that case, the EEOC sued Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in 2001 on behalf of employees who claimed they had been forced to undergo genetic tests after complaining of carpal tunnel syndrome. The condition is a repetitive-motion injury to the wrists and hands.

The EEOC argued that the company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (PL 101-336), though EEOC officials later warned Congress that the disabilities law might not apply in all cases of genetic discrimination. The railroad settled with the EEOC and the employees in 2002, paying them $2.2 million.

Bill supporters note a long record of anecdotal evidence of genetic discrimination beginning in the 1970s, when some blacks were denied jobs and insurance because they carried the gene for sickle cell anemia.

“Congressional action on genetic discrimination is necessary and long overdue,” Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., sponsor of the House version of the bill (HR 493), told the subcommittee Jan. 30.

With Democrats in charge of the House, the bill is expected to pass easily in that chamber too. President Bush has said he supports it.