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House Committee Passes Partner Benefits Bill

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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday voted 23-12 to pass the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal government workers.

The bill is now likely to move to a full House floor vote, which many anticipate could take place before the end of the year.

"Last I talked to the majority leader who sets the floor schedule, he was hopeful that it could get fairly prompt attention by the full House," said out congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who is the lead sponsor of the bill in the House.

Debate over the bill split along party lines with Democrats emphasizing the concepts of fairness and equality and Republicans objecting to the legislation on the basis that it would begin to redefine marriage or would create special rights for LGBT people.

GOP representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska opened his statement by saying that he deplored any form of discrimination.

"Ironically, this bill seems to put one group of persons over another," Fortenberry said. "The legislation defines domestic partners in an open-ended and ambiguous manner and creates a privileged class of persons of the same sex."

But Democratic representative Danny Davis of Illinois took exception to Fortenberry's characterization.

"It is unsettling to me to think that because of the way that someone might feel, the way they might act, or the way they might behave -- circumstances that they have no control over -- that the rest of us would sit in some kind of judgment to deny them the very things that we would want for ourselves," Davis said.

Republican California congressman Darrell Issa, the ranking member on the committee, objected to the bill on the grounds that it was fiscally irresponsible.

"We are taking up a bill that casts aside all concerns about fiscal responsibility in order to bestow costly new benefits to a select class of federal employees," he said.

The Obama administration has estimated that the bill would cost taxpayers $56 million next year, which represents about 0.2% of the entire cost of the government's federal employee health insurance, according to previous testimony by John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

But Issa said that estimate includes only the cost of providing health benefits and noted the legislation is not limited to health benefits.

"Without a cost estimate, the committee does not know what the short and long term costs of this bill may be and what impact the bill may have on premiums," said Issa.

But the committee chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns, called the bill's price tag "relatively minor" in terms of the overall federal employment budget.

"The administration has committed to finding a way to pay for this bill, so we can comply with House PAYGO rules," he said.

The Senate companion bill has yet to be scheduled for a committee vote, but Baldwin said that still might take place next month.

"In my private conversations with Senator [Joe] Lieberman, who is both the chair and the bill's author, he said he hoped for a markup in December," she said. "What I plan on doing now that the bill is reported out of committee is call him up and give him a progress report and maybe prompt parallel action on the Senate side."

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