WASHINGTON -- For years, American opinion on gay marriage has been shifting. Now lawmakers are in a mad dash to catch up.
In less than two weeks, seven senators -- all from moderate or Republican-leaning states -- announced their support, dropping one by one like dominoes. Taken together, their proclamations reflected a profound change in the American political calculus: For the first time, elected officials from traditionally conservative states are starting to feel it's safer to back gay marriage than risk being the last to join the cause.
"As far as I can tell, political leaders are falling all over themselves to endorse your side of the case," Chief Justice John Roberts told lawyers urging the Supreme Court on Wednesday to strike down a law barring legally married gay couples from federal benefits or recognition.
It was the second of two landmark gay-marriage cases the justices heard this week, the high court's first major examination of gay rights in a decade. But the focus on the court cases obscured the sudden emergence of a critical mass in the Capitol as one by one, senators took to Facebook or quietly issued a statement to say that they, too, now support gay marriage.
For some Democrats, like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the reversal would have been almost unfathomable just a few months ago as they fought for re-election. The potential risks were even greater for other Democrats like North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, already top GOP targets when they face voters next year in states that President Barack Obama lost in November. It was less than a year ago that voters in Hagan's state approved a ban on gay marriage.
Those four Democrats and two others -- Mark Warner of Virginia and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia -- were swept up in a shifting tide that began to take shape last year, when Obama, in the heat of his re-election campaign, became the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton followed suit in mid-March. Rank-and-file Democrats now appear wary of being perceived as holdouts in what both parties are increasingly describing as a civil-rights issue.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, cautioned in a USA Today interview that the GOP should not "act like Old Testament heretics." Among Republicans, whose party platform opposes gay marriage, the shift in position has mostly been limited to former lawmakers and prominent strategists.
Still, a change in tone was palpable this month when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican whom Mitt Romney vetted last year as a potential running mate, declared his support, citing a personal conversion after his son coming out to him as gay.