September 10, 2014 at 10:19 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
House panel rejects spousal benefits for gay veterans
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The U.S. House voted down an amendment that would ensured spousal benefits flow to gay veterans (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A panel in the Republican-controlled U.S. House on Wednesday rejected a measure that would have enabled veterans with same-sex spouses to receive partner benefits wherever they live in the country.

By a 12-13 vote, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs failed to pass an amendment from Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) along the lines of the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, legislation that would change Title 38 of the U.S. Code to ensure the flow of spousal benefits to gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans.

Introducing the amendment, Titus said the measure was intended to end an injustice affecting thousands of veterans who are being denied crucial benefits based on their sexual orientation and state of residence.

“This inequality for those who wore the uniform of the United States armed forces and their families is unacceptable,” Titus said.

Although the vote was a largely along party lines with Republicans voting “no” and Democrats voting “yes,” Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, was the only Republican who broke with his party to vote “yes” on the amendment. All votes cast against the amendment were from Republicans.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he opposed the amendment because it would interfere with states that have enacted laws related to marriage.

“Deference to the state is not motivated by hostility, it is motivated by adherence to the Constitution,” Miller said. “As such, I believe that it is not appropriate to usurp the states’ power to democratically define marriage for their citizenry — not for personal belief, and not for bureaucratic convenience.”

In his remarks, Miller invoked a recent federal court decision upholding Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage as evidence that state laws are still standing that restrict marriage to one man, one woman. That decision upholding Lousiana’s marriage ban is one among more than 35 other rulings that have overturned prohibitions on same-sex marriage in other states.

After the Supreme Court ruled against Defense of Marriage Act, the Obama administration began extending spousal benefits to individuals in same-sex marriages throughout the country for the most part regardless whether the state in which reside recognize their union.

But a year after the ruling, the administration deemed that because Section 103(c) of Title 38 of the U.S. Code — which governs veterans benefits — looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a couple is married, it could not afford spousal benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages if they live in a non-marriage equality state.

Although the administration has developed a workaround for some benefits, it still won’t afford important benefits like ChampVA (health care for spouses of disabled veterans), higher disability compensation for disabled veterans with dependents, full access to VA home loans and many survivor benefits for widows.

Titus’ amendment was intended for a bill introduced by Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) called the Our Vets Deserve Better Act, which would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to meet with existing VA health care advisory committees no later than 30 days following the bill’s enactment. After the Titus amendment failed, Miller removed the legislation from the agenda at that committee meeting.

One notable Republican who voted “no” on the amendment was Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), who’s considered one of four sitting House Republicans to support marriage equality.

Although he said “the current system is not fair” for gay veterans, Jolly said he couldn’t bring himself to support the amendment because he felt it was non-germane to the larger bill.

“Frankly, if I’m Mr. Heck today, I’m wondering what the Heck has happened to my bill,” Jolly said. “Legislation I introduced on advisory panels is going to be turned into legislation to carry matters related to same-sex benefits. And on germaneness, I have a concern. I’m certainly not going to raise a point of order, but I have hard time getting to ‘yes’ on this simply because this is not the Heck bill.”

Despite his “no” vote, Jolly called for another committee markup or some other kind of forum in which the full committee could debate the measure as a standalone bill.

Also voting “no” on the amendment was Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), another co-sponsor of ENDA. He’s set to attend the upcoming annual dinner for the National Log Cabin Republicans in D.C. on September 17.

But a number of Democrats spoke out in support of the amendment, including Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), one of the openly gay members of Congress, and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).

Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), another openly gay member of Congress who’s running to become the next governor of Maine, also spoke in favor of the measure on the basis that it would afford crucial benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages.

“Access to those benefits should not be conditional upon who a veterans is married to, what state they got married in,” Michaud said. “This is common-sense measure that shows our respect and gratitude to all of our veterans.”

Lori Hensic, director of research and policy for the LGBT military group known as the American Military Partner Association, criticized lawmakers who rejected the bill.

“The ability of our nation’s veterans, no matter their sexual orientation, to access their earned benefits should be an issue that transcends partisan politics,” Hensic said. “It’s a sad reflection on the state of our Congress when our elected officials cannot put aside their differences to end this discrimination.”

Read the full opening remarks from Titus as before introduced the amendment below:

“The amendment filed is based on H.R. 2529, the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, legislation I introduced over a year ago to address the injustice facing thousands of veteran families across the country currently being denied federal benefits based on their state of residence.

“In the Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. USA, the highest court in the land ruled that legally-married same sex couples could not be denied federal benefits.

“Nearly a year after that ruling, the Veterans Administration, through consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice, announced that veterans living in states where their marriage is not recognized would be denied access to the full range of federal benefits they have earned and deserve.

“This inequality for those who wore the uniform of the United States Armed Services and their families is unacceptable, and we, as the committee charged with overseeing the laws to serve their needs, have a duty to act.

“In March of this year, the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a legislative hearing on my legislation.

“Not a single witness testified in opposition of this measure.

“I repeat, not a single witness came forward to oppose this change.

“The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America testified that, “IAVA supports equitable treatment of all veterans and their families and supports the changes this legislation seeks to make to Title 38.”

“The Veterans of Foreign Wars, VetsFirst, and AMVETS echoed this sentiment in their endorsement of the bill.

“Even the VA has endorsed changing this policy.

“The amendment simply ensures that legally-married veterans can apply for the benefits they have earned by removing language currently found in Title 38 that unintentionally bars that access for legally-married, same-sex couples based on laws of the state in which they reside.

“The current language has resulted in legally-married couples being discriminated against by the country they fought to protect. They don’t wear the uniform of a state, they wear the uniform of the federal government. If they live in California, they can get benefits. But if they move to Texas, then they lose those benefits. They live in New York, they get those benefits. But if they move to Florida, they lose those benefits.

“As I have said many times, my legislation, and this amendment, does not change the laws of any state, and enactment of this language will have no impact on state laws barring marriage equality.

“This amendment is not about supporting same-sex marriage and it’s not about forcing states to change their policies, it’s about giving all of our veterans what they deserve.

“Our veterans did not fight for a state – they fought for the United States.

“This is simply an issue of fairness to the brave men and women, and their families who serve this nation.

“I ask my colleagues to think about the veterans in your state. If you live in a state that does not recognize their marriage, you have a chance today, right now, to provide them the benefits they earned while serving our nation in uniform. Our committee has worked tirelessly in a bipartisan way throughout this Congress to ensure that ALL veterans have access to the benefits they have earned. Right now, you have the chance to continue our bipartisan efforts.

“I ask you to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘is this fair to my veterans?’

“Better yet, look into the eye of a veteran and ask, ‘is this fair?’ We have praised the heroism, the courage, the valor of our veterans throughout the last two years. I ask you to have one ounce of the courage they have and vote today to give all of our veterans’ equal rights.”

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

  • OF COURSE they did. There is never a question of whether or not a homophobic Republican-controlled committee will block a gay rights bill. There are three questions, however. 1. Why is the Administration continuing to enforce this section of Title 38 when they have refused to enforce §§ 101(3) & (31) which define a veteran’s “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex” for the last year having asserted that, in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder: “Although the Supreme Court did not directly address the constitutionality of the Title 38 provisions in ‘Windsor’, the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.” 2. What happened to the President’s January promise that: “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families that’s what I’m going to do.”? 3. Why is no gay veterans group publicly demanding that he keep that promise and refuse to enforce Title 38 § 103(c) with the same legal and moral logic trumpeted in September 2013 by Holder?

  • Did a single Dem vote against this bill? What kind of reporting is this?

  • …and there ladies and gentlemen, the Typical GOP Bigotry and Hate on Display…! Shocked? Im NOT!!!

  • “Deference to the state is not motivated by hostility, it is motivated by adherence to the Constitution,” Miller said. “As such, I believe that it is not appropriate to usurp the states’ power to democratically define marriage for their citizenry — not for personal belief, and not for bureaucratic convenience.”

    I call bulls**t. The feds have been stomping on states' rights for a century. By this logic, probably 20% of what the feds do would be disallowed. States would be at liberty to set 120 MPH speed limits on Federal Highways, just as one example.

    Furthermore, the issue was not the states' definition of marriage, but the provision of FEDERAL benefits to Veterans and their legally their spouses under federal law. If the money were state money, then maybe the argument would have a leg to stand on.

    As it is, if you live in some states the feds will give you the money, but if you live in others they won't. Imagine if left handed people in a state were suddenly told they weren't allowed to deduct their children on their federal taxes because of a state law. "Other people get that benefit, but we've decided that you don't, because you're left-handed."

    Try again, Congressman. Or could it be that it really is just hostility?

  • The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted to deny spousal benefits to veterans. Below are the names of those who voted against these benefits. Also below is my letter to each of them. If so inclined, I urge you to let them know your displeasure, too.

    Jeff Miller (FL), Doug Lamborn (CO), Gus Bilirakis (FL), David Roe (TN), Bill Flores (TX), Jeff Denham (CA), Dan Benishek (MI), Tim Huelskamp (KS), Mike Coffman (CO), Brad Wenstrup (OH), Paul Cook (CA), Jackie Walorski (IN), David Jolly (FL)

    Your vote to deny spousal benefits to LGBT veterans is a shameful act of cowardice. Daily,
    members of the military face the fear of putting their lives at risk for you. Daily, the family members of these military personnel face the fear of not seeing their loved one again. You,
    however, are afraid you might not be reelected. You, however, are afraid you will upset those who fear LGBT persons. That you put your fears over the fears these LGBT veterans face is unconscionable. That you place your bigotry and hatred over those willing to die for you, and over those who daily fear the safety of their loved ones is unconscionable. You should feel nothing but shame today. I know that is all I feel for you.

  • So much for those gays that say that being gay doesn’t matter anymore in America. When will you learn that you will have to fight for everything most others take for granted and the struggle really never ends? Despite the advances of African-Americans they still have always to be on guard to make sure those advances aren’t reversed or watered down.

    Even if the SCOTUS were to uphold marriage equality based on equal protection clauses in the Constitution, which should be a no-brainer, social conservatives will continue to oppose it much like they do abortion. Social conservatives don’t want to accept anything that may lead to the advancement of the rights of gay Americans let alone anything that will lead to the recognition of gays as a minority class.

    Even if nationwide marriage equality becomes a reality soon, we still have a long way to go in outlawing job, housing, public accommodation and services discrimination. We can’t even agree among ourselves on how such laws should be written let alone be united enough to push for it until it happens. Look at ENDA and the never-ending excuses why sectors of our own community try to derail it.

    You take too much for granted assuming this country will put gay equality on the fast-track as a priority. Polls indicating majority support have done really nothing to get our legislative priorities voted on let alone approved! People may say such discrimination is wrong but really do little if anything about it.

  • Actually The American Military Partner Association has filed suit against VA secretary Robert A McDonald in Federal District Court of DC. Here is the opening.

    “The American Military Partner Association (“AMPA”), through its counsel
    Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. and Morrison & Foerster LLP, hereby petitions this Court pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 502 and Federal Circuit Rule 47.12 to review the summary of legal opinions issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), the legal opinions referenced in that summary, and the VA instructions identified below. The challenged action mandates denial of spousal benefits to veterans and their same-sex spouses and survivors on the ground that their marriages are not accorded legal recognition by the states where they resided at the time of marriage and when the right to benefits accrued, notwithstanding that these states’ denial of legal recognition to such marriages is unconstitutional. Having weathered the federal government’s past, longstanding discrimination against them, lesbian and gay veterans and their families find themselves once again deprived of equal rights and earned benefits by the government they served and the nation for which they sacrificed.”

  • We are well aware of AMPA's lawsuit, but lawsuits are a last resort AFTER one has exhausted all others which AMPA inexplicably has failed to do. They chose to bypass the Court of Public Opinion—public pressure on the President. If other groups had done that, he never would have kept his promise to order federal contractors not to discriminate against LGBTs. In fact, AMPA keeps acting as if Mr. Obama has no role in this at all, as if the VA Secretary doesn't REPORT TO HIM. And, now, in the absence of any public pressure by gays and their allies, the Administration will simply fight/try to kill this lawsuit as they did the two previous ones against Title 38, one by gay vets denied 100% of their earned one-time separation pay, and THREE lawsuits against DADT. This is not to say that Mr. Obama has not done some good things for the community, too, but history proves he is often willfully in the wrong on gay rights issues, and this is another example. Thank you.

  • As long as the couple is legally married the Federal government has to recognize marriage based on the DOMA ruling….So, if a couple gets married in CA then moves to AZ the Feds should still recognize the marriage.

  • This is shameful

  • IT IS CLEAR that the right does NOT care about minorities, women, the LGBT community, children(once out of the safety of the womb), the unemployed, the homeless, veterans, immigrants, worshipers of opposing religions….who am I missing in this list?

  • Freedom means the FREEDOM to choose who you want to love and marry. I guess CONS only want those in the military to fight for the freedoms that CONS think are right.

  • And yet the heads at FOX will spin this into 'Obama's fault' by Monday.

  • THIS….is typical GOP standards of operations.

  • Move to Fl for a real dosage of rep politics

  • Jon Mor I live in Idaho…it's close enough.

  • If you require more information regarding final arrangement benefits, we are happy to answer your questions.

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