This is very good news: The Employment Non-Discrimination Act just easily  passed out of the Senate Health and Education Committee — with three Republican Senators voting for it. The measure, which would end discrimination in hiring decisions based on sexual orientation for all but the smallest businesses, got Yes votes from co-sponsor Mark Kirk (a gay marriage supporter), as well as Lisa Murkowski and … Orrin Hatch.

Hatch’s support was expected but it could bode well for the bill’s overall chances in the Senate. It already has 53 co-sponsors (led by Jeff Merkley and Kirk). A Senate Democratic aide says a full vote is coming soon. It needs 60 votes to clear a GOP filibuster, but supporters think a few more Republican Senators might be induced to come out for it, such as Dean Heller and Rob Portman (who has come out for marriage equality).

I continue to think that this is going to put Republicans in a difficult spot, both in the Senate and (if it passes the Upper Chamber) perhaps even more so in the House. After all, it is now beyond any doubt that the country is evolving rapidly on gay rights, a fact that was underscored when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and due process, and as a deliberate to impose inequality on a selected class of Americans.

The amount of Americans who live in states where gay marriage is legal has jumped dramatically in recent years. Gay marriages in those states enjoy federal recognition. And the SCOTUS decision all but ensures a wave of future lawsuits challenging state laws still banning marriage equality.

In a way, a vote against ENDA puts Republicans on the wrong side of history in just as stark a fashion as the party’s continued opposition to gay marriage does. After all, ENDA doesn’t have the cultural baggage of the gay marriage debate; it’s simply about whether gay and lesbian Americans will be discriminated against in hiring decisions.

As John Aravosis puts it:

While ENDA’s chances in the GOP-controlled House are anyone’s guess, there’s a growing consensus that the Republican party would like nothing better than for gay issues to go away, especially with the Supreme Court all but confirming that the legalization of gay marriages is now all but inevitable. The GOP is worried about gay rights, and their opposition to it, playing into a larger narrative of intolerance, and simply being out of touch, that has Republicans concerned they are destined for minority status.

Aravosis adds that Dems and gay rights advocates are hoping to “force the Republicans in the Senate, and especially the House, to vote on ENDA and show the American people their true colors. Are they for jobs, and equality, and tolerance, or are they the same old GOP – Grandpa’s Old Party – they’ve always been?”

It’s quaint to do this now, but I’ll quote from that Republican National Committee makeover document, anyway:

Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, this issue is a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be.

Of course, not long after publishing this, the RNC subsequently reaffirmed the party’s institutional opposition to gay marriage.

The coming confrontation over ENDA gives Republicans another opportunity to revive that “makeover,” but I’m not optimistic they’ll take it.


UPDATE: The statement from HELP committee chair Tom Harkin:

From the bottom up, a rapidly growing majority of Americans are demanding equal rights for citizens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. And, the week before last, the Supreme Court recognized the fundamental rights of married same-sex couples. Yet, despite this progress, under federal law, it is still entirely legal to fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against a citizen based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  It is time to say that it should not be legal to discrimination in this fashion. It is time to make clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are equal, first-class citizens. They are fully recognized and welcomed as members of our American family. And they deserve the same civil rights protections as all other Americans.

UPDATE II: Read GLAAD’s statement right here.