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How Tammy Baldwin Guided Marriage Equality Through a Divided Senate

Senator Tammy Baldwin
Photo by Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Baldwin, who represents Wisconsin, is the first out LGBTQ+ member of the Senate.

(CNN) -- Hours before the Senate voted to protect same-sex marriage rights, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin tapped twice on the wooden table before her for good luck.

"I'm not a superstitious person," the Democrat told CNN. "But I still have to do that."

Baldwin needed not worry; She had not left the rights of LGBTQ people like herself up to fate. The Senate passed the bill 61-36 on Tuesday, five months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and left the left fearful about what six conservative justices could do.

In an interview at her hideaway office in the basement of the Capitol, Baldwin -- the first out LGBTQ member of the Senate -- noted two key moments in the passage of the bill, which would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and establish into federal law that same-sex marriages in one state must be recognized by another.

The first was on June 24, when the court decided in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization to undo the constitutional right to an abortion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the court should also reconsider past rulings built from the same legal ground, including those protecting same-sex marriage and access to contraception.

Less than a month later, the Democratic-controlled House passed New York Rep. Jerry Nadler's bill to protect same-sex marriage. And California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Baldwin introduced their bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act.

"I can tell you that as a member of the LGBTQ community and hearing from both same-sex couples and interracial couples who read Dobbs and read the Thomas concurrence and said, 'Oh, my God, what is happening,'" Baldwin said. "'We've gone back 50 years with regard to women's reproductive rights. What's next for marriage?'"

If the court hadn't overturned Roe, "this bill wouldn't have been introduced," added Baldwin.

The second crucial moment occurred on September 15. In the Senate, at least 10 Republicans would have to support the bill to pass it -- and Democrats could count on only four: Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Collins.

That was not enough. And some Republicans said they would not vote for the bill before the midterm elections, leaving Democrats with a dilemma.

If they pushed the vote, and failed, Democrats could sink their chances of passing the legislation but at least run on the issue before the midterms; 71% of Americans say they support same-sex marriage, according to Gallup. Or they could wait until after the election, when Republicans could win back a chamber of Congress, and trust that a handful of Republican senators would keep their word.

At a meeting that day in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's office in the Capitol, Baldwin, Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and others said that they didn't have the votes, but would after the election.

"It was pretty clear," said Baldwin. "We went to Schumer with evidence. We didn't name names, and I never will."

Collins, who was shuttling between hosting a Maine lobster Senate GOP lunch and negotiating in Schumer's office, said, "Tammy did a great job of reaching out to the Democratic leadership, and emphasizing the importance, and helping to decide, some of the timing, such as waiting 'til after the election."

"Her leadership was critical," added Collins.

At the meeting, Schumer noted his own personal connection to the issue -- his daughter married another woman in 2018 -- and agreed to get the bill done after the election. "It was just a helpful reminder at the perfect moment" that "not everything" Congress does is to win, said Baldwin.

"This was never political for us," she added.

When the Senate bill passed on Tuesday, Schumer wore a purple tie -- the same one he wore to his daughter's wedding.

'Until it's done, it can't be done'

The passage of the Respect for Marriage Act caps a nearly 40-year political career for Baldwin, a 60-year-old low-key, progressive Wisconsinite, who worked her way up from the Dane County Board of Supervisors to the State Assembly to the House of Representatives to the Senate.

She was out from the beginning. Asked if anyone had ever urged her to hide her sexual orientation along the way, she replied, "I think the answer is basically no."

"After I ran for the county board in 1986 as an out lesbian, there was no, like, going back into the closet afterwards," said Baldwin with a laugh. "So anyone who tried to come up to me in 1994 and say, 'you know, really not great to be running for State Assembly as an out lesbian,' it's like eh, too late, done that."

In 1998, Baldwin became the first out gay, non-incumbent elected to the House. In 2012, she became the first out LGBTQ member elected to the Senate.

"Until it's done, it can't be done," said Baldwin of making history. "Somebody then does it -- and now it's something that can be done."

Sinema, the first out bisexual person elected to the Senate, called Baldwin "a trailblazer on the issue of LGBT rights for decades."

Tracking Republican support

After the September meeting, Democrats like Baldwin and Sinema agreed to a number of religious liberty protections to get Republicans on board.

The amended bill made clear that marriage was between two people. It said that non-profit religious institutions would not be required to provide any services, goods or facilities for celebrating same-sex marriages, and that their tax status would not be affected. It also stated, "diverse beliefs about the role of gender in marriage are held by reasonable and sincere people based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises," pushing back on claims that those who don't support same-sex marriage are bigoted.

"My own first reaction was: this is absolutely unnecessary," said Baldwin, pointing to the provision related to polygamy, which is illegal. "But if they want clarification in writing, OK, there's no harm to state the facts."

While all of the changes were not enough for many GOP senators, they appealed to faith organizations like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes same-sex marriage, and swayed enough Republicans. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, noted his church's approval when he announced his support for the bill this month.

"The religious liberty protections in this bill are strong," said Sinema, who worked with the LDS Church, the National Association of Evangelicals, and other religious groups, and was critical in getting Republican support for the bill.

The provisions also won over Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young, who explained to Republicans "disappointed in my decision" how he could support the bill in an Indianapolis Star column.

"I would never try to persuade people to change the teachings of their faith, but I can explain why I think Christians should not be fearful of this legislation," he wrote.

Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a conservative Republican, also said she would support the bill despite "a painful exercise in accepting admonishment and fairly brutal self-soul searching" due to her deeply-held, personal religious view that marriage should be between one man and one woman. But she decided to back the bill, she said, since it was important "to tolerate" each other "in order to survive as a nation."

In the months-long push to pass the bill, Democrats appeared to lose only one vote -- Republican Sen. Ron Johnson's -- that they seemed to have.

Before his reelection earlier this month, Johnson indicated that he would support a bill to codify same-sex marriage. But after he won, Johnson said the legislation did not do enough to protect religious liberties, and attacked Democrats for creating "a state of fear over a settled issue in order to further divide Americans for their political benefit."

Asked about Johnson's comments, Baldwin, reflecting her gentle demeanor, declined to comment on her Wisconsin colleague, and turned the conversation toward those who she said would benefit from the new law.

She did something similar a couple weeks ago, when Baldwin tried to draw attention toward others, putting a picture of her friends Margaret and Denise, and their daughter Maria, on the Senate floor during a speech.

"Visibility has changed people's hearts and minds," Baldwin told CNN.

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Related: Senate Passes Respect for Marriage Act

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