The U.S. Senate voted 59-36 early Thursday to block consideration of an amendment that would force the District of Columbia to hold a referendum calling for overturning the city’s same-sex marriage law.
Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) introduced the amendment about 1 a.m. during a marathon Senate session in which Republicans introduced dozens of amendments aimed at derailing a health care reconciliation bill backed by President Obama.
Senate Democrats remained united in opposing Bennett’s amendment, as they had for all other amendments offered to the reconciliation measure, saying an unfettered health bill was essential for completing a two-pronged process of finalizing their health care reform package.
The vote to block Bennett’s amendment came in the form of a Republican proposed motion to waive a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian that the amendment was not germane to the health care reconciliation bill. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Senate floor manager of the reconciliation bill, requested the non-germaneness ruling by raising a parliamentary point of order.
Bleary-eyed senators then voted on whether to defeat the motion to waive the point of order, with all Democrats voting against the waiver motion and all but two Republicans voting for it.
Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), both supporters of LGBT rights, were the only two Republicans to break ranks with their party and join Democrats to vote against the waiver.
Five senators — three Republicans and two Democrats — did not vote on the motion.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who presided over the Senate at the time of the vote, announced the result of what some political observers say was the first of several expected votes in Congress on D.C.’s same-sex marriage law over the next several months.
“The yeas are 36, the nays are 59,” Brown declared from the podium. “Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn not having voted the affirmative, the motion is not agreed to. The point of order is sustained. The amendment fails.”
“It is always offensive when Congress tries to meddle with the decisions of the democratically-elected government of the District of Columbia, but this is unfortunately nothing new,” said Trevor Thomas, a spokespereson for the Human Rights Campaign.
“What is deeply cynical about the Bennett Amendment, however, is the attempt by Senate Republicans to use marriage equality in the District as a political wedge to kill the historic effort to improve the health care system for all Americans. Fortunately, a strong majority of Senators rejected this political ploy.”
The defeat of the Bennett amendment followed an e-mail alert issued Wednesday by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage informing its members and supporters that Bennett planned to introduce the amendment Wednesday or Thursday.
“For weeks, we’ve been working to get a vote on the D.C. Marriage Referendum,” Brian Brown, the group’s executive director, said in the alert. “And Sen. Bob Bennett has championed the cause, pushing for the floor vote that will put the entire Senate on record on marriage. … Please take action now.
“[O]ur senators need to know that we are watching, and will remember in November, how they vote on the D.C. marriage referendum,” Brown said.
Brown’s alert suggests that anti-gay groups would likely portray the vote to disallow the Bennett amendment from being taken up as a direct vote on gay marriage in D.C., despite assertions by Senate Democratic leaders that the vote was aimed only at keeping a non-germane measure off of the health care reconciliation package.
Backers of the health care reform package note that if just one Republican amendment to the reconciliation measure is approved by the Senate, the entire package must return to the House of Representatives for a vote.
Bennett’s amendment was entitled, “To protect the democratic process and the right of the people of the District of Columbia to define marriage.”
The text of the amendment was not immediately released on the Senate web site, and Bennett’s office could not be reached at the time the vote took place.
A similar amendment that Bennett filed two weeks ago but did not introduce called for forcing D.C. to stop issuing marriage licenses until an initiative or referendum was held to allow voters to decide the issue. It could not be immediately determined whether the amendment Bennett introduced Thursday, which the Senate blocked, called for stopping the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses until a referendum was held on the issue.
“It was good to see a super-majority of the Senate reject a hypocritical effort to undermine D.C.’s marriage law as well as health care reform,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national same-sex marraige advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
“The D.C. City Council and mayor duly enacted a law ending exclusion from marriage, and Congress chose not to interfere during the oversight review period before the law took effect,” Wolfson said. “Couples have now married, families have celebrated, and the sun still rose. Members of Congress should focus on ending discrimination, not trying to reinstate it.”
But Bob Summersgill, a gay D.C. activist, predicted that anti-gay groups like NOM would continue relentlessly to attempt to kill the city’s same-sex marraige law.
“I am hopeful that the Congress will not force a ballot measure on marriage equality, but it may happen,” he said. “We must prepare for it. We must continue to talk to our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers about our families and why marriage equality is important for all of us. We must show that politicians will not lose their seats because they voted for marriage equality, but rather they will gain votes.”
Local gay activist Peter Rosenstein called the vote against the Bennett amendment “a recognition by members of Congress that they should not interfere with D.C.’s home rule.”