July 19, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Feinstein on DOMA repeal: ‘We’re in this for the long march’

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) maintained on Tuesday that backers of legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act are in the fight “for the long march” and will continue pushing for the bill’s passage even it doesn’t make it through this Congress.

Feinstein, the sponsor of DOMA repeal legislation known as the Respect for Marriage Act, asserted supporters will continue to press on with the measure at the National Press Club during a news conference intended to highlight the bill and a Senate hearing set to take place Wednesday on the measure.

“I want to assure you that this isn’t a cause which we are going to drop,” Feinstein said. “We are not faint hearts about this. If we don’t succeed this session, we will try again next session. If we don’t succeed next session, we will try again the following session, but, believe me, we will continue this effort until the battle is won.”

Among the 14 senators who voted against DOMA when it came before the Senate in 1996, Feinstein said she opposed the measure at the time because she thought it was “unconstitutional” and continues to believe that to this day about the anti-gay law.

Following the news conference — which was organized by the Courage Campaign, a progressive organization working to build support in the Senate for DOMA repeal — reporters questioned Feinstein about the prospects for passing repeal legislation during the 112th Congress. Observers have said passage of any pro-LGBT bill — including DOMA repeal — wouldn’t happen as long as Republicans remain in control of the House.

Asked whether she thinks DOMA repeal would pass the Republican-controlled House, Feinstein acknowledged passage in that chamber remains a challenge, but reiterated “we’re in this for the long march, not just for the short haul.”

Observing litigation is making its way through the federal courts that could strike down DOMA, Feinstein said she wants legislative repeal of DOMA in addition to having the judiciary rule against the law. Asked whether she had a preference for legislative or judicial action, the California Democrat replied, “I think we should do both, so that we secure the arena forever.”

The necessary 10 votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee are present to report out the legislation to the floor. Each of the Democrats on the committee have signaled — through co-sponsorship or on-the-record comments — they would support the bill. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the panel, could report out the legislation to the floor, if he so chose, following the hearing on Wednesday.

However, Feinstein said a timeframe hasn’t yet been established for when the legislation would proceed to the floor — or even if it would happen this Congress — as she acknowledged that the votes are present in committee to move forward.

“There’s no timeframe right now and this is — I believe we have votes from all Democrats, so whether we’ll pass it out on a majority basis, I don’t know,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein maintained that the purpose of the upcoming hearing would be to demonstrate the hardship that DOMA has on married same-sex couples.

“I think it’s very important that we achieve a level of understanding of what this is — that it’s not affording any special rights,” Feinstein said. “It is simply saying that if you’re legally married in a state, the federal government can’t prevent your spouse, for example, from getting Social Security benefits — those kinds of things that are afforded to married couples.”

Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Feinstein also responded to criticism about the scheduled witnesses for the hearing being all white and the lack of representation of bi-national couples at the hearing. Gay activist Dan Choi has spoken out against the selection of the witnesses for being what he called “exclusively white and privileged,” even though the hearing notice indicates the same-sex couples set to testify have suffered economic hardship because of DOMA.

Feinstein said she believes the selection of witnesses accurately represents the issues LGBT couples face under DOMA.

“Every couple has a different story to tell,” Feinstein said. “That’s for sure. The point is, these are all legally married people. And the point is marriage is the preserve of the state, not the federal government. Just as all family matters, abortion, adoption, inheritance are really state law. That’s why one state is different from another state.”

A transcript of the exchange between Feinstein and reporters on DOMA repeal legislation follows:

Reporter: When will the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee? Is there a timeframe?

Dianne Feinstein: Oh, it’s before the Judiciary Committee. The hearing is tomorrow.

Reporter: But a vote in committee? A markup?

Feinstein: No. There’s no timeframe right now and this is — I believe we have votes from all Democrats, so whether we’ll pass it out on a majority basis, I don’t know. I think it’s very important that we achieve a level of understanding of what this is — that it’s not affording any special rights. It is simply saying that if you’re legally married in a state, the federal government can’t prevent your spouse, for example, from getting Social Security benefits — those kinds of things that are afforded to married couples.

Reporter: Senator, is there any Republican support from your bill?

Feinstein: Not at this time. I think it’s a hard time because of the Tea Party and the sort of ideological bent right now. But that’s going to change.

Reporter: You said that the president’s opinion on marriage equality — should he come out in favor of it — would certainly be welcome. You’re hoping he endorses repeal. Have you had any talks with the administration on the bill?

Feinstein: No. I haven’t precisely. I was very heartened when the administration came out with their belief that it was unconstitutional, and I think that’s a major step forward. The issue will go to the Supreme Court. That’s one way of the issue being solved and the other way is legislatively.

Reporter: Do you have a preference?

Feinstein: Oh, I think we should do both, so that we secure the arena forever.

Reporter: Do you think you’ll have any trouble getting it through the House?

Feinstein: Right now I think it will, but as I said, we’re in this for the long march, not just for the short haul.

Reporter: Senator, the selection of witnesses for tomorrow’s hearing has come under criticism. There are no racial minorities who will be testifying about how DOMA affects them. Also, there’s no bi-national couples who will be testifying —

Feinstein: I can’t answer that because the chairman usually puts together the witnesses. I think we were asked to submit one couple, is that right? [Feinstein aide: "We submitted a number of selections.]

Reporter: But really quickly, do you think the selection of witnesses accurately represents how DOMA impacts same-sex couples.

Feinstein: Yes. I mean, every couple has a different story to tell. That’s for sure. The point is, these are all legally married people. And the point is marriage is the preserve of the state, not the federal government. Just as all family matters, abortion, adoption, inheritance are really state law. That’s why one state is different from another state.

Reporter: Senator, how about within the broader Democratic caucus. Do people want this? Is this something that your fellow senators, you sense, want a floor vote on even if it can’t pass in the House?

Feinstein: It would be, of course, ideal to have a floor vote and have it pass. It would not be ideal to have a floor vote and have it fail. I’m not into failure as an option.

Reporter: How did you feel all those years ago when you were one of … 14 [senators who voted against DOMA] and how have things changed since then?

Feinstein: I think eyes have opened. I think more and more people across this land know people who are gay, who want to have a lasting relationship, who look at marriage as an economic agreement as well as an emotional agreement, who want to raise children and do raise children — many of them — children who have no other option. So, it becomes an important social gift, too.

Thank you, bye.

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

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