In a wide-ranging interview with LGBT journalists and bloggers Thursday, White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said President Barack Obama had chosen to take steps at the agency level to eliminate inequities for same-sex couples and gave no indication he would move toward supporting full marriage equality.
Asked if the president would go beyond incremental fixes to address a lack of marital rights for same-sex couples before 2012, Barnes noted that the president “has consistently called for the repeal of [the Defense of Marriage Act]” and used his “executive authority” to help provide more benefits to same-sex couples through federal agencies.
“That’s the course that he has identified, that’s the course that he has supported,” Barnes said.
The Advocate followed up with, “Just to reiterate, he still supports civil unions ... that’s a separate-but-equal institution — and I’m wondering if he’s at any point going to move to embracing full equality rather than these smaller steps.”
Barnes responded, “I understand what you’re saying, but that’s the course he has set forth.”
The exchange took place during a briefing in which Barnes fielded questions for a little over an hour from eight pro-LGBT outlets — The Advocate, AmericaBlog.com, Bilerico.com, Gay City News, Keen News Service, Metro Weekly, Pam’s House Blend, and Philadelphia Gay News.
In her opening remarks to the group, Barnes said the Obama administration had moved the ball forward on LGBT equality yet acknowledged a level of frustration among LGBT advocates.
"We believe that in the last 18 months … we have taken more steps and made more progress with regard to the LGBT community than past administrations have," she said. "We would not argue that change has come as fast as we would want it to or as quickly as we would want it to, but we would certainly argue that in other contexts as well – it took us a year and a half to get the health care bill done and the same with other pieces of legislation that are priorities for us."
During the course of the hour, Barnes was pressed on whether the president would push harder to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), why the administration has not been more communicative with the LGBT community, if the president believes the Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional, and whether the White House would fight any sort of poison-pill amendment that seeks to kill DADT repeal on the Senate floor.
What follows are short excerpts from several exchanges:
The Washington Blade asked whether the White House could push to pass both “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and the ENDA as the congressional session winds down.
Barnes: DADT is obviously further down the queue just because the House has acted and the Senate Armed Services Committee has acted as well ...
We believe given the work that we’ve done with Congress and the DOD as well as the leadership in the relevant committees and the leadership in both houses that that’s moving forward.
With regard to ENDA, the president has consistently said that he supports ENDA, he supports an inclusive ENDA. There have been members of the administration who have testified in support of ENDA ... [Tom Perez from Department of Justice’s civil rights division and Stuart Ishimaru, who chaired the Equal Opportunity Employment Office]
The leadership [of the House and Senate] will have to decide how they are going to use floor time to move things forward ... and how aggressively they are going to be able to move given the time that’s left. But we have certainly indicated our support of those — ENDA, and you know the activity that’s taken place around DADT.
Metro Weekly asked about the White House’s lack of communication around defending DADT and DOMA in the courts and whether officials could clarify their rationale for doing so.
Barnes: Across the board ... there is a constant effort to better communicate the message and better communicate what we’re doing.
I would imagine that ... when there’s a filing, that it scrapes at the scab one more time. That it reminds people of the posture of the government one more time. But that doesn’t change the rationale behind what we have to do. I think the president has said this ... we can’t pick and choose the laws that we defend.
There may be a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of examples where the government has not defended a law that’s on the books. But we believe, the president believes, that given his office, he has to defend the law. But at the same time, I think we have done a better job of indicating in the briefs that that doesn’t mean we don’t believe that DOMA is discriminatory.
Pam’s House Blend asked, “Why brief us now ... this would have been much more productive if it had happened earlier on.” PHB also noted much displeasure among the LGBT grass roots and expressed concern that the only place the White House is getting its information from is the Human Right Campaign.
Barnes: First of all I would say, we are here now, and that reflects the desire to be engaged ... I would also say I believe my colleagues who are in the communications office and outreach office have had … very frequent communications and conversations with those of you seated at this table and others who aren’t at this table … There’s always a desire and an effort to do better, that's why we're sitting here now.
Keen News Service questioned why the president would defend laws that are unconstitutional, specifically DOMA.
Barnes: Because right now, it’s the law of the land. ... We believe that it’s our obligation to defend the law, if Congress had a rational basis for passing the law.
The president hasn’t made an argument about the constitutionality of the law, he’s just said that it’s discriminatory.
AmericaBlog asked whether the White House would "actively oppose" any amendments on the senate floor to the DADT repeal measure that might weaken or kill the measure.
Barnes: What I can tell you is that when we see any amendments that are filed, that we will continue to do what we did through the process in the House, which is, work to move this forward. Obviously if there is an effort to undermine repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" the president will fight -- wouldn't be supportive of that. At the same time, I can't sit here and walk through hypotheticals for amendments that I haven't seen or that haven't been filed.