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Thursday's Senate hearing on the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, included three friendly senators, three friendly witnesses, and no opposition.
"Senator Collins and I introduced this bill because we believe it is the fair and right thing to do and also because we think it makes sense -- practical sense -- for the federal government as an employer, particularly as we approach a generational change in the federal work force that will see the retirement of approximately one third of all federal employees," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, who is the lead sponsor of the bill and also chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee where the hearing took place.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is chief cosponsor of the bill and the ranking member of the committee, and Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, both offered supportive statements for the bill.
Testifying on behalf of the bill's passage were out U.S. representative Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, who introduced the bill in the House; John Berry, the highest-ranking LGBT Obama official and director of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal government's nearly 1.9 million employees; and Dr. William Hendrix, chair of Dow Chemical Co.'s LGBT affinity group.
Berry's testimony stressed the competitive disadvantage of not offering domestic-partner benefits, especially as the federal government recruits a new generation of workers. He said new graduates today are using domestic-partner benefits as one of their "litmus tests" for where they want to work. "So this is not just important to the LGBT community, this is important so that we can be competitive in hiring kids out of colleges and graduate schools today," he said.
Despite the dismal economy, he added, the federal government still has dire hiring shortages, especially of engineers, nurses, and veterinarians.
The two main points of interest they addressed that could be used as arguments against the bill were the cost of offering same-sex partner benefits, and whether some federal employees might fraudulently claim people as their domestic partner.
Hendrix said Dow Chemical, which has offered domestic-partner benefits to both straight and gay couples since 2002, has not found a single case of domestic-partner fraud since inception of the policy.
Berry added that at the federal level, fraud would carry a criminal penalty.
In terms of the bottom line, Berry called the cost of adding same-sex domestic-partner benefits "negligible." "The total cost of the entire implementation of this program equates to about two tenths of 1% of the entire cost of our federal health insurance program," he said.
Berry also pledged that the program overhaul within OPM would save the government enough money in the short term to make the benefits program deficit-neutral. "I can assure you today that the efficiencies and the program reforms that we intend to put in place that will benefit our federal employee retirees will more than offset the cost of the programs over the life of this administration," he said.
Lieberman said that the committee intended to mark up the bill sometime in November or December, and "then take it up sometime early next year" on the Senate floor.
The companion bill in the House has already had a hearing, been marked up, and passed out of committee. Whether the legislation will be voted on by the full House before the end of year is still in question.