May 16, 2012 at 6:38 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Senate panel approves DP benefits legislation

Sen. Joseph Lieberman sponsors legislation that would provide benefits to the partners of federal employees. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A Senate committee tasked with overseeing government operations Wednesday morning approved legislation that would extend major benefits to federal employees with same-sex partners.

The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee approved the legislation, known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, or S.1910, by voice vote along with other bills.

Chair Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of legislation, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking Republican on the committee and an original co-sponsor, issued statements following the vote praising the bill.

Lieberman drew a distinction between legislation offering gay federal employees partner benefits and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

“S. 1910 is not about same sex marriage,” Lieberman said. “It is about equal pay and equal benefits for equal work. In fact, many people who oppose the legalization of same sex marriage, including myself, strongly support this equality in employee benefits for domestic partners.”

The senator, who’s set to retire at the end of this year, said passage of the legislation would help the federal government attract employees who might otherwise opt for employment in the private sector.

“Correcting this situation that allows for unequal treatment among federal workers not only fixes a fundamental unfairness in the current system, it will help the federal government recruit and retain talented employees who might otherwise reject federal service because of they can get fairer benefits packages from other private or public sector employers,” Lieberman said.

Collins also touted the legislation as a means to allow the federal government to keep up with other employers in recruiting workers.

“This change is both fair policy and good business practice,” Collins said. “The federal government must compete with the private sector when it comes to attracting the most qualified, skilled, and dedicated employees. Today, health, medical, and other benefits are a major component of any competitive employment package. Indeed, private sector employers are increasingly offering these kinds of benefits as standard fare.”

According to Collins, nearly 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies — including top federal contractors — extend benefits to employees with same-sex partners.

The legislation would ensure that gay employees working for the federal government have the same partners benefits that are available to the spouses of straight workers — including health and pension benefits.

In 2009, President Obama signed a memorandum extending limited domestic partner benefits to federal employees with same-sex partners. However, major ticket items — health and pension benefits — were excluded from this action because the administration believed that would violate the Defense of Marriage Act.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the legislation is “about the basic concept of fairness in the workplace.”

“The federal government would be wise to follow the private sector in offering equal pay for equal work,” Solmonese said. “America’s major corporations have discovered that equality is not only the right thing to do, but good for business. Equal workplace policies, like those DPBO would enact, will help attract and retain the best and brightest talent, which is exactly what our federal workforce needs.”

The bill is estimated to cost less than $700 million over the course of 10 years. In comparison, the total budget for employee compensation and benefits is $400 billion a year. Therefore, the legislation would take up two hundredths of one percent of the total budget.

The only amendment approved during the markup was a substitute bill recommended by the Office of Personnel Management to provide a spending offset. Under the substitute, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program can recover the costs of insuring a same-sex partner who’s already covered by a party other than the federal government. FEHB carriers can recover funds through reimbursement or subrogation.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on when the legislation would come up for a vote on the Senate floor. The legislation has 23 co-sponsor, far short of the 60 needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

In the House, companion version of the legislation is sponsored by lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and 86 co-sponsors. The bill has seen no movement in the Republican-controlled chamber.

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

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