WASHINGTON, D.C. -- During a Thursday meeting that embodied Washington's ideological rift over marriage rights for same-sex couples, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to move forward a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
The committee voted 10-8 to advance the bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act and introduced in the Senate last March by Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California.
Feinstein's bill currently has 30 cosponsors, though its prospects before the full Senate remain uncertain. Republicans on the committee assailed their Democratic colleagues during the meeting for pursuing a bill that they believe lacks adequate votes and is not on Senate majority leader Harry Reid's agenda to bring to the floor.
Even if the Senate votes to repeal DOMA, a House companion bill has stalled as Republican leadership defends the constitutionality of the 1996 law in multiple federal suits. But many advocates saw Thursday's vote as key to the larger effort waged against the discriminatory law. "We are one step closer to eliminating DOMA's gay exception, which unfairly withholds the federal protections and responsibilities of marriage from loving and committed same-sex couples who are legally married," Freedom to Marry president Evan Wolfson said.
In opening remarks, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said that as a result of DOMA, "thousands of American families are now being treated unfairly by the federal government. They are shunted aside -- singled out from all other marriages recognized by the states."
But Republicans criticized the chairman's decision to consider the bill as Congress grapples with a stagnated economy and job growth at a standstill. Several GOP members brought forth arguments against marriage rights for same-sex couples commonly used by social conservative groups, including concerns about child welfare -- rhetoric discordant with modern social science research.
"For thousands of years, across all cultures and nations, marriage was exclusively a heterosexual institution," said Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member on the committee. "I've always supported the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. To me, this debate is about stable families, good environments for raising children, and religious beliefs. It's not about discriminating against anyone."
In Iowa, "the [state] Supreme Court forced this on the people," Grassley said, which led to the ouster of three court justices by voters in a referendum.
Committee members including Republican John Cornyn of Texas also said that extending federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples would be costly for programs such as Social Security, "which is already insolvent," Cornyn said.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, disagreed with Cornyn's analysis. "On the contrary, productive tax paying LGBT citizens and their families provide the very revenue necessary to pay for Social Security," Cooper said. "Senator Cornyn has accurately identified Social Security as a broken entitlement program and I am sure he would agree there is a need for reform. Let's talk about saving Social Security by repealing DOMA, amending eligibility requirements and a transition to a combination of a government-funded program and personal accounts through partial privatization of the system."
Democrats in the meeting countered with their own evidence of DOMA-as-burdensome-governmental-regulation for American companies, many that are forced to maintain Byzantine bookkeeping records distinguishing gay and straight employees. In her remarks Feinstein referred to an amicus brief filed last week in a pending DOMA lawsuit by corporations including Google, Microsoft, and Starbucks that enumerated the challenges businesses face as a result of the law.
Partisan brinksmanship endured throughout Thursday morning's committee meeting. Senator Cornyn called the DOMA repeal bill a transparent attempt to pander to "a special interest group that our Democratic friends believe is key to their electoral victory in 2012."
Oklahoma Republican senator Tom Coburn asked whether Democratic leadership had any intention to bring the bill up for a vote, to which Democratic whip Dick Durbin of Illinois replied, "I would say it's very difficult to predict what's coming to the floor because of the filibusters that have been raised against so many issues, none of them from our side of the aisle."
Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the committee, told The Advocate Thursday afternoon, "The schedule is not determined by one side. As Senator Durbin observed, we would move a lot more quickly without the threat of filibuster, and without the need for 60 votes for every measure."
Calls to Senator Reid's office for comment regarding when the bill might go to the floor were not immediately returned.
Passed in 1996 when no state or district had enacted marriage equality, DOMA prohibits recognition of legal same-sex marriages for federal purposes. The Respect for Marriage Act would amend federal code to read that an "individual shall be considered married if that individual's marriage is valid in the State where the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and the marriage could have been entered into in a State."
In a statement, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said, "President Obama applauds today's vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve the Respect for Marriage Act, which would provide a legislative repeal of the so-called 'Defense of Marriage Act.' ... The federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections afforded to straight couples." (Text of the bill is here.)
Video of the meeting will be available at the Senate Judiciary Committee website here.