A Senate committee took historic action on Thursday against the Defense of Marriage Act by approving legislation that would lift the anti-gay law from the books.
The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the legislation to the floor by a vote of 10-8 along a party-line basis.
The committee vote marks the first-time ever that any component of Congress has voted to repeal DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, since it was first enacted in 1996.
Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in his opening statement said legislation to repeal DOMA, which is known as the Respect for Marriage Act, is necessary because “thousands of American families are now being treated unfairly by their federal government.”
“They are shunted aside — singled out from all other marriages recognized by their states,” Leahy said. “This unfairness must end. The Respect for Marriage Act would provide for the equal treatment of all lawful treatment of all lawful marriages in this country by repealing DOMA.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the legislation, said she thinks DOMA is “discriminatory” and “should be stricken in its entirety from federal law.”
“Marriage is legal preserve of the states,” Feinstein said. “DOMA infringes on this state authority by requiring the federal government to disregard state law and deny more than 1,100 rights benefits to which all other legally married couples are entitled.”
Republicans said they oppose DOMA repeal because they believe it would undermine the definition of marriage as one man, one woman and impose same-sex marriage in states where it isn’t recognized. The GOP committee members also questioned why the panel was taking up the bill when passage of the floor is unlikely and the country is facing other matters such as jobs and the economy.
The Respect for Marriage Act wouldn’t require states to recognize marriage equality. However, the bill would enable federal benefits to continue to flow to same-sex couples if they marry in one jurisdiction and move to another state within the country that doesn’t recognize their union.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican on the committee, said the longstanding definition of marriage as between one man, one woman was one of the reasons he voted against the bill.
“For thousands of years, across all cultures and nations, marriage was exclusively a heterosexual institution,” Grassley said. “Obvious biological realities were a major reason why. Another reason was the universal religious view that marriage was about procreation and child-bearing.”
But Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) disputed the argument that marriage has been static for centuries and said Grassley “misstated” the history of the institution.
“Marriage has not existed as a union between one man and one woman for thousands of years in every culture,” Franken said. “In many cultures, men are able to marry many women, and even young girls. For centuries, women were treated as chattle in marriage.”
Franken continued, “Further, if the religious purpose of marriage is for procreation, why would we sanction marriage between an 80-year-old widower and a 80-year-old widow? I just think we need to be accurate when talk about … the history of our institutions.”
Grassley also disputed the notion that marriage is a civil rights issue, drawing a recent column from the New York Times’ Frank Bruni. Among the quotes from the column that Grassley selected was from Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who was quoted as saying attempts to equate the persecution of gays and blacks is “deeply offensive.”
In a statement, Henderson said he in fact believes marriage is a civil right issue and Grassley mischaracterized his remarks before the committee.
“Sen. Charles Grassley chose to misappropriate and misconstrue statements attributed to me in a news article in order to make an illegitimate case against equality for LGBT Americans,” Henderson said. “He was wrong. Marriage equality is a civil rights issue and I am a supporter of marriage equality.”
LGBT advocates heralded the committee vote and called it one step toward ridding the books of an anti-gay law that has barred married same-sex couples from enjoying the federal benefits of marriage.
Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign, said the panel vote marks a milestone in which the Senate for the first time “voted to make gays and lesbians whole people.”
“This truly historic vote today should never have been necessary because this absurd law should never have been on the books,” Jacobs said. “Thanks to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, we have a bill that can move to the Senate floor where fair-minded people who believe in a nation united, not divided, can end federal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples legally married in six states and the District of Columbia.”
Jacobs also criticized committee Republicans for voting in unison against the bill, saying, “Sadly, the Republicans think this is a partisan issue.”
Rea Carey, executive director of National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, was also among those praising the committee for moving forward with the Respect for Marriage Act.
This vote marks an important step toward recognizing our common humanity, and moves us closer to ending a grave injustice against thousands of loving, committed couples who simply want to provide and care for each other as other married couples are allowed to do,” Carey said. “It is shocking and an outrage that, in modern-day America, legally married same-sex couples are being singled out and selectively denied fundamental rights by their own federal government.”
The White House also praised the committee for moving forward DOMA repeal legislation. In July, President Obama endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act, although he previously campaigned on DOMA repeal in 2008.
“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,’ said Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson.
Inouye continued, “The president has long believed that DOMA is discriminatory and has called for its repeal. We should all work towards taking this law off the books. The federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections afforded to straight couples.”
Whether the bill will come to a vote before the full Senate remains to be seen. In addition to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the bill’s sponsor, the bill only has 30 co-sponsors — far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
A Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson deferred comment on scheduling to office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), which didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the bill.
Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted the difficulties of passing DOMA repeal on the Senate floor as a reason why the committee shouldn’t even have taken up the legislation. Cornyn said Democratic leaders would face a revolt in their own caucus if a vote was scheduled because of the political difficulties in passing the bill.
Asked by Cornyn during the markup whether a floor vote on DOMA would happen this Congress, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he’s uncertain because of the Republicans’ extensive use of filibusters on the Senate floor.
But Durbin said “it would be worth it” to hold a floor vote on DOMA repeal even if the bill only received support from its 30 co-sponsors.
No amendments were offered during the markup to amend DOMA. The Washington Blade obtained three amendments that were set to come up during consideration of the bill, but no committee member introduced them. It’s unlikely Republicans had the votes to adopt any of the amendments as part of the legislation.
Among those in attendance during the Senate committee markup was Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of the DOMA repeal legislation in the House.
Following the vote, Nadler told the Washington Blade the Senate markup was “another step forward” in moving toward DOMA repeal, but expressed pessimism about a similar vote in the Republican-controlled House.
“This is a subject that the more people get used to it, the better it is, the easier it makes it,” Nadler said. “I don’t believe the Republicans are going to allow a vote in the House anytime soon. We may have to wait for the next election for that, but this will help. It’ll definitely help.”