November 10, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
BREAKING: Senate panel approves DOMA repeal legislation

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

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

21 Comments
  • ‘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’.
    Republicans whining how haaaard their job is so why bother.

    • This is such a LIE! Changing the religious word “Marriage” to include homosexuals has nothing to do with equality! Marriage, under the law is nothing more than a term used for a contract between a man and a woman. Homosexuals have such a contract available to them called Civil Unions. Should any inequity between these two contracts exist, that should be what’s addressed!

      So I reject the premise that this is about equality. I believe what the real issue at hand is, does the government have the right to redefine religious terminology! Marriage is a religious word that defines the relationship between a man and woman before God! It is a religious rite and/or practice. The word marriage has had this context LONG before the government for right or wrong, incorporated the word into law and tax code.

      Should one argue that it is inherently unequal to have two different words for the union of two people, one for heterosexuals and another one for homosexuals, then the only authority the government would have the authority to do is to stop using the religious word in it’s tax codes and law and have everyone get Civil Union contracts. This would resolve all issues! No one is offending anyone’s religious rights while no one is having issues with different treatment for whoever they are with … man/man, woman/woman or man/woman.

      People I have had this conversation with have told me that the reason why people wont agree to this is because it has NEVER been about the equality! This whole debate has been about the word marriage and an agenda to force itself into religious doctrine.

  • For once I agree with the GOP. I too wonder why this bill is being debated in Congress now with zero chance of passage when other issues like jobs are far more urgent. If any LGBT bill should be taken up by Congress during this session it should be ENDA, a jobs bill.

    This hearing is nothing more than political theater, Democrats pandering to the wealthy 1% (i.e. early Obama endorser HRC) and still running away from the far more urgent issue of LGBT Americans in 35 states still being denied basic workplace rights.

    If you ever needed more proof that Democrats are still not serious about dealing with the issues of jobs and employment, look no further.

    • As a gay man, I totally disagree and with reason on my side. The times are hard, and my family is denied the Federal assistance provided to every straight married couple. It strikes me odd that the whole country can freak out about $1000 a year taken out of middle class paychecks (mine included) and yet can’t understand why I want my $2000 in tax deductions and benefits from being classed as “married”. Besides, the Republicans preach freedom and liberty yet it is by their hand these two things have been denied to my people. Democrats don’t shutdown churches and tell you how to live!! We Democrats are in-touch. We are the majority. Our nation supports same-sex marriage by 54%. Furthermore, 20% of Americans already have same-sex marriage (including the inevitable case of California). It’s coming and you can be seen as a throwback on the wrong side of history or a rightful minded American.

  • “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.”

    What a bunch of hypocrites! Where was that “laser focus” on jobs and the economy when they were wasting their time affirming “In God we trust” last week. Like that was some seriously important legislation.

    With respect to the economy, while this article doesn’t mention it, 70 high-ranking US businesses have filed a brief with the court in which they document their opposition to DOMA and how it’s hurting their businesses. That DOES make it relevant to jobs and the economy and worth spending the time on. http://www.advocate.com/News/Daily_News/2011/11/04/Google_Microsoft_Starbucks_Say_DOMA_Hurts_Their_Businesses/ [or just google on "DOMA hurts businesses" if this url gets zapped].

  • The Dems deal with these trifling issues because they have no idea how to legislate in favor of job creation, lowering the debt, resoling the myriad economic woes, etc.

    • Trifling issues? Really? Thanks to DOMA, tens of thousands of same-sex couples have to live in different countries or on different continents because gay US citizens cannot sponsor their spouses for immigration. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to live in the US with our spouses have to live in constant fear of being deported and separated from our families. Repealing DOMA would grant us the federal benefits any heterosexual married couple automatically receives, including immigration benefits. I doubt you have experienced being separated from your spouse of 10 years because your marriage doesn’t count in the eyes of federal law.

  • Lady you got it wrong, it is the GOP who pander to the wealthy. Get your head out of your ass. Obviously you are DUMB gay Republican trying to pander to the party who hates you! Ignorance!

    • Because Goldman Sachs owned Obama is just one of the regular fellas?! Lol. They ALL pander to the wealthy because that is who puts them in power to do the wealthy’s bidding.

  • Every step to repeal DOMA is a step forward and today is a good beginning. It does have meaning if you are a same sex couple being denied federal benefits which often times means loosing your house if your spouse dies because unlike a heterosexual couple….you don’t received the social security of the deceased spouse. This is the beginning and the courts suites against DOMA are from coast to coast and will eventually be in the U.S. Supreme Court. That is when the rubber meets the road.

    • Straight couples shouldn’t get benefits for being married either. The Federal Government has no business in marriage. There is supposed to be a separation of church and state and marriage is a church issue!

    • Yeah thats why your church gets its marriage licenses you sign at your wedding from the court house.. The bible didn’t create it because marriage and forms of union predate Christianity

  • Marriage is a church issue. The Federal Government does not have the power or authority to decide who is “married”. They can call it marriage for tax purposes, but the Federal Government should not give people a bonus for finding love. The whole deal is just more bureaucracy! I guess ugly straight people are doomed to pay more taxes forever!

    Try as they will, most God loving people know the Bible (which invented marriage) is the real law of marriage and clearly states it is between a man and a woman. Gays can lie to themselves and try to make us put on a fake face of acceptance, but that does not alter reality. Where are all the “separation of church and state” folks at when the government wants to get in the marriage game?

    • Marriage is NOT a church issue. It is a legal contract between 2 people allowing 1138 benefits, rights and protections from the federal government. Also, please look at the TRUE history of marriage and you will see that woman were considered possessions and men could have MANY wives. Stop rewriting history and pretending marriage is a religious institution in order to support your bigotry.

    • The Bible was written in the first century AD. Are you telling me no one was married before that?

  • “legal preserve of the states,” Feinstein said”…since when do the Democrats give a crap about states rights…?

  • ““For thousands of years, across all cultures and nations, marriage was exclusively a heterosexual institution,” Grassley said.”

    …you really think that, huh?

  • Hate to break it to you Mr. Johnson, but it’s either CATTLE, as in livestock and property, or CHATTEL which is humans treated again, as property. CHATTLE is not a word. How did your word processor and/or editor miss this? When I typed it in, I got a incorrect spelling, surely you did too.

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