April 26, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Votes lined up in Senate committee for DOMA repeal

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has recently voiced support for DOMA repeal (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

New support for legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act assures that the necessary votes are in place for a favorable Senate committee vote on the measure as advocates maintain hearings should take place first before advancing the bill.

Last week, the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would repeal the 1996 anti-gay law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, gained two additional co-sponsors: Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Kohl’s support for the legislation is critical because he’s a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and would have a vote when the roll is called to move the legislation to the floor. Lynn Becker, a Kohl spokesperson, said the senator had previously considered DOMA a state issue.

Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), another member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also said she’d vote for repeal of DOMA in committee, although she’s stopped short of co-sponsoring the legislation. Last month, the Minnesota Independent reported that the senator would back the Respect for Marriage Act.

In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Klobuchar confirmed that legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act has her support.

“I would vote to repeal this law because I believe same-sex couples and their families should have access to the same basic rights, including hospital visitation and survivor benefits,” Klobuchar said.

The support from Kohl and Klobuchar means that the Respect for Marriage Act has at least 10 votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee — enough to advance the bill to the Senate floor.

The two Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee publicly came on board in support for DOMA repeal after the Courage Campaign, a progressive California-based grassroots organizing network, pushed the lawmakers to articulate their support.

Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign, said his organization began eyeing important votes in the committee upon introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act in March.

“It was two situations where we had this idea … to have people tell their stories locally and to make sure … that these legislators heard that they all have constituents, supporters and donors who are affected by DOMA,” Jacobs said.

In Minnesota, Jacobs said the Courage Campaign circulated an online petition to encourage Klobuchar to voice support for the Respect for Marriage Act. After the initiative, the Minnesota senator said she’d support the legislation.

“We published a blog post on our Prop 8 Trial Tracker asking about her,” Jacobs said. “That got picked up by the Minnesota Independent, and together with folks in state, there was a little pressure put on, and within about a day, as I recall, a state senator had gotten confirmation that she would repeal of DOMA.”

Similarly for Kohl, Courage Campaign launched an online campaign to encourage his support for DOMA repeal. According to the organization, more than 1,000 people wrote to Kohl urging him to back the Respect for Marriage Act.

“We contacted our members in his state — we’ve got 7,000 — and they contacted him,” Jacobs said. “They gave us some really terrific stories and, again, last week, his state director contacted the local equality organization that we’re working with to confirm, to say, ‘Yes. yes, yes, we are going to be on board.’”

Despite having the votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee, imminent plans that exist for the Respect for Marriage Act in the panel are unclear. Erica Chabot, a Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson, said she was unable to communicate with Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) during the congressional recess about his plans.

Advocates working to advance the legislation say hearings should take place before the bill is sent to the Senate floor to follow regular order and build additional support.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said “a tremendous amount of work” is needed before the Senate is ready to pass DOMA repeal.

“We are working with Chairman Leahy and other leaders to build support for the bill and we believe a hearing is a good first step to start that education process before decisions are made on tactics for passage,” Cole-Schwartz said.

Jacobs said he would defer to Feinstein’s judgment on when the time is right to hold a committee vote on the Respect for Marriage Act.

“I would defer to Sen. Feinstein, and I say that because I really do trust her on this issue,” Jacobs said. “She looked me in the eye in February — and I’ll never forget this — and she said, ‘I want to repeal DOMA.’”

Still, Jacobs maintained supporters of DOMA repeal “don’t have to sit still for two years” and said congressional testimony would be a big step because pro-repeal hearings have never taken place in the Senate.

Brian Weiss, a Feinstein spokesperson, deferred to earlier comments the senator made during a news conference in March upon introduction of the legislation where she articulated a sentiment similar to HRC’s.

Feinstein predicted that hearings would be held in the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed by a successful vote to report the bill to the floor.

“We use the regular order as much as we can and we can use it the entire way so that the hearings are held and no one can say we pushed anything through, so that everybody has a chance to express themselves,” Feinstein said.

Even if the bill is reported to the Senate floor, significant hurdles remain in passing the legislation. Ending a filibuster in the Senate requires 60 votes, so at least seven Republicans would have to vote in favor of ending debate on the measure. The Respect for Marriage Act as of Tuesday had no GOP support.

Further, the legislation is unlikely to see a vote in the GOP-controlled House, where U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has directed the House general counsel to litigate on behalf of DOMA in court.

To facilitate more support for DOMA repeal, Jacobs said Courage Campaign intends to have a grassroots volunteers in each state by early May and in each congressional district by the end of June pushing lawmakers to back the Respect for Marriage Act.

“We’re going to organize and organize and organize,” Jacobs said. “I assure you, we will see more senators getting on board.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

4 Comments
  • Interestingly, I feel like Congress sees what the judicial branch is doing and thinks, boy we maybe we should act on that. Of course, if Congress hadn’t acted the courts were going to make changes to DADT and since the Obama administration has stopped defending DOMA in the court system it was a matter of time before the judicial branch weighed in constitutional issues surrounding DOMA. No matter what your public policy views on these issues are, I think it’s interesting to see how Congress is reacting in relationship to the judicial branch.

  • As usual, the Democrats in the Senate are 2 years too late. The House teabaggers will never vote for any civil rights bill put before them.

  • your right, but maybe the strategy is to force the courts to act.

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