February 26, 2014 at 6:56 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Shaheen poised to help gay veterans on Senate floor

Jeanne Shaheen, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade, New Hampshire, Democratic Party

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) filed the Charlie Morgan Act as an amendment to a veterans benefits bill (Pubic domain photo).

The senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire filed an amendment on Wednesday that would ensure married same-sex couples can access spousal veterans benefits wherever the go in the country, although the measure at this time seems unlikely to see a vote.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) submitted the measure, known as the Charlie Morgan Equal Treatment Act, as a potential amendment to S.1982, a veterans benefits bill under debate this week on Senate floor.

“No one who has served openly in our military and fought for our country should be denied benefits that they’ve rightfully earned,” Shaheen said. “The Charlie Morgan Act makes sure that we fulfill the commitment we have made to all of our veterans and military families so that finally no spouse, child or family can be denied the care and benefits they deserve.”

As the Washington Blade previously reported, seven months after the Supreme Court ruling against Section 3 of Defense of the Marriage Act, the Obama administration is still not affording to veterans benefits — such as disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery — to married same-sex couples who apply for these benefits in non-marriage equality states.

The portion of the law governing spousal benefits for veterans, 103(c) of Title 38, looks to the state the residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married. The Obama administration has said it’s reviewing whether it can afford these to married same-sex couples in states without marriage equality following the DOMA decision, but no announcement has been made.

The amendment is cosponsored by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis).

Udall said in a statement the amendment ensure veterans “receive the benefits they have earned regardless of whom they love or in which state they were legally married.”

“Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, legally married veterans and their families are still being cut off from the benefits they earned through their service to our nation,” Udall said.

Just because the senators filed the amendment, the measure won’t necessarily come up on the Senate floor. Senate leadership has to come to an agreement to allow the amendment to come up for a vote.

Faiz Shakir, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), blamed Republicans and said at this time no amendments — including the Charlie Morgan Act — will be able to come up for a vote on the measure.

“The Republicans have been poisoning the debate by insisting that a vote on Iran sanctions be included as part of the bipartisan veterans bill,” Shakir said. “Sen. Reid has insisted that we should allow votes on relevant amendments from both sides (which the Shaheen/Udall proposal would certainly be a candidate for). But until Republicans can agree to the threshold of relevant amendments, we’re stuck in a situation where no progress on amendments can be had.”

Don Stewart, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in turn criticized Reid.

“First of all, we’re not even on the bill yet procedurally, so no amendments are in order at this time,” Stewart said. “And once we are, the expectation is that Sen. Reid will ‘fill the tree’ (which blocks ALL other amendments from being considered).

Udall has been vocal about the issue and has written at least two letters to the Obama administration urging federal officials to stop enforcing veterans law in a way that discriminates against same-sex couples.

Mike Saccone, a Udall spokesperson, said the introduction of the amendment shouldn’t be taken as a sign the senator has given up on pushing for an administrative fix to the issue.

“The administration can and should do this on its own, but until that happens Sen. Udall is going to pursue every avenue to fix this and prevent any more incidents of discrimination,” Saccone said.

The amendment is named after New Hampshire National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a plaintiff in the one of the federal lawsuits against the DOMA who passed away last year after a battle with breast cancer. According to Shaheen’s office, Morgan’s spouse and daughter haven’t able to receive certain survivor benefits “due to restrictions in the federal code prohibiting the VA from administering benefits.

Last year, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved the Charlie Morgan Act by voice vote as part of a package of additional bills.

Allison Herwitt, vice president for government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, was among those calling for passage of the measure.

“While we have made great progress in extending the full range of federal benefits to married lesbian and gay couples, there is still uncertainty regarding the equal recognition of all the families of the brave men and women who have served our nation in uniform,” Herwitt said. “Sen. Shaheen’s bill will honor the memory of Charlie Morgan and ensure that all veteran families get the respect and benefits they deserve.”

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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