Could Obama’s announced support for gay marriage — which won’t have any real impact in legislative terms — help build momentum in other areas where Congress can act on gay rights?

A bipartisan group of Senators is going public today with a call for Senate hearings on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would expand the ban against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for all but the smallest private-sector employers, I’m told.

The White House came out in support of ENDA as a broader solution after it angered advocates by deciding against an executive order barring same sex discrimination by federal contractors. ENDA is a longtime priority for gay rights advocates, and there’s little chance it would pass this Congress, but the bipartisan group of Senators is hoping to draw attention to the issue in the wake of Obama’s announcement.

Today Dem Senators Jeff Merkley and Bob Casey and GOP Senators Mark Kirk and Susan Collins will release a letter calling on the Senate health and labor committee to hold hearings on ENDA. From the letter:

ENDA would prohibit most workplaces in the United States, with exemptions for religious institutions, private membership clubs and certain small businesses, from discriminating against potential and existing employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As strong supporters of this legislation, we urge you to schedule a time for Committee members to consider this proposed legislation.

ENDA embodies the American ideal of fairness: employees should be judged on their skills and abilities in the workplace, and not on their sexual orientation or gender identity. While some states prohibit public and private employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, recent studies have found evidence of continued widespread employment discrimination against LGBT people. Sadly, it is still legal for businesses in many states to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We appreciate your past support for discussing this critical issue for millions of American workers, and we respectfully ask that you ensure an opportunity during this Congress for the full Committee to consider testimony on this bill.

Gay advocates have been pushing for ENDA’s passage for years, and have repeatedly been frustrated each time it has gone nowhere. The bill’s hopes are still slim, but the fact that a couple of moderate Senate Republicans are calling for increased attention to it — via hearings — is a good development. At a minimum, it contrasts sharply with what happened in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives last night, where Members struck back at Obama’s announcement by passing a measure to stop the Obama Justice Department from opposing the Defense of Marriage Act.

The relevant committee for ENDA is controlled by Senator Tom Harkin, and Senate aides think hearings are a real possibility. Whether the measure will actually get a Senate vote is anything but certain. But in the wake of Obama’s announcement — and in the wake of news that socially conservative groups are gearing up to make gay marriage central to the campaign — anything that elevates the discussion of gay rights can only be a positive, in both substantive and political terms.


UPDATE: The hearings will happen. Senator Harkin’s office sends over a statement:

“Every American deserves an equal opportunity to earn a good living, judged by their talent, ability and qualifications free from discrimination. Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is reprehensible and has no place in our nation. This upcoming HELP Committee hearing will provide an excellent opportunity to build on the Committee’s previous work and help advance our shared goal of equal rights for all Americans. I am hopeful that working together, we will reach a point where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons enjoy the same rights and protections, and full equality, as all our fellow Americans.”