WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin debate Thursday morning on a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
As is the case with most new bills that appear before the committee, a vote on the Respect for Marriage Act is likely to be held over until next week, should a committee member request such a delay.
The bill, introduced in March by Judiciary Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, is cosponsored by all 10 Democrats on the committee and none of the eight Republicans. Feinstein's bill currently has 30 cosponsors overall as LGBT advocacy groups continue to seek more support from lawmakers including Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
Only one GOP member of congress, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has sponsored repeal of the 1996 law. Ros-Lehtinen signed on to the House version of the bill in September.
Though political observers expect the bill to pass out of committee, it's yet unclear whether any opposition will lead to amendments aimed at derailing the legislation. Committee members are required to circulate any amendments the night before they are offered; the committee releases amendments on its website after they are offered in session.
If passed out of committee, the Respect for Marriage Act still faces an uncertain fate on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, legal challenges against DOMA continue to mount. Last week, a group of gay and lesbian service members and their spouses sued the federal government, arguing that the law denies them equal benefits to which their heterosexual colleagues are entitled.
The Judiciary Committee's Thursday schedule also lists several judicial nominations, including Michael Walter Fitzgerald, who would become the nation's fourth openly gay federal judge if confirmed. Nominated by President Obama in July, Fitzgerald testified before the committee last month.
Update: As expected, a committee vote on the DOMA repeal bill has been held over until next week.
Fitzgerald's judicial nomination was reported through committee with no dissenting votes and will be voted on by the full senate. It's unclear when that will happen: There are now 22 judicial confirmations pending before the senate.
There are currently three amendments to the Respect for Marriage Act from Sen. Grassley, though none were offered during the meeting today. Members have until next Wednesday afternoon to offer amendments on the bill.
In Thursday morning remarks, Chairman Leahy said that a number of states, as well as the District of Columbia, that have marriage equality "are undermined by the operation of DOMA. The result is that in these states, DOMA has created a tier of second-class families who are not treated equally under the law. This runs counter to the values upon which America was founded."
Chairman Leahy's prepared remarks before the committee on the Respect for Marriage Act:
"Today we also begin debate on the Respect for Marriage Act. Earlier this year, I was proud to join Senator Feinstein and others to introduce the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would repeal DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), and restore the rights of all lawfully married couples.
"When I voted for DOMA in 1996, I believed that it was a way to allow states to maintain their independence and define marriage as each state saw fit. But much has happened since DOMA's passage to show us why it must now be repealed. Six states, including Vermont, and the District of Columbia, have now provided the recognition and protections of marriage to committed same-sex couples. Unfortunately, the protections that these states provide to their married citizens are undermined by the operation of DOMA. The result is that in these states, DOMA has created a tier of second-class families who are not treated equally under the law. This runs counter to the values upon which America was founded.
"The Respect for Marriage Act would restore the power of states to define and determine "marriage" without the Federal Government imposing its restrictive definition of marriage on the states. No one can dispute that the issue of marriage has traditionally been left to the states. Repealing DOMA would return this power to the states where it belongs.
"The Respect for Marriage Act would allow for all couples who are married in accordance with state law to be eligible for the same Federal protections afforded to every other lawfully married couple in the country. Nothing in this bill would obligate any person, religious organization, state, or locality to perform a marriage between persons of the same sex. What would change, and what must change, is the Federal Government's unequal treatment of state-approved marriages. All married couples deserve the same clarity, fairness, and security under our Federal law. The time has come for the Federal Government to recognize that all married couples deserve the same legal protections.
"I look forward to the repeal of DOMA. This Committee taking favorable action on this bill takes us closer to that day."