March 27, 2015 at 11:10 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
11 Senate Republicans vote for benefits for same-sex couples

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The U.S. House approved an amendment related to spousal benefits for married same-sex couples. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Amid a series of amendments the upcoming budget for the federal government, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a measure that would allow married same-sex couples to have access to major spousal benefits.

The amendment, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), would establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund aimed at ensuring married same-sex couples — even those living in states that don’t recognize their unions — have access to the Social Security and veterans benefits.

The measure wouldn’t in and of itself extend these benefits to same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states, but would set up a reserve fund in anticipation of a change — either through the legislation, an administrative change or the courts.

Even though the Supreme Court has ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act, the Obama administration has determined it can’t afford Social Security and veterans benefits to married same-sex couples in states without marriage equality. Federal code for these benefits looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married.

For Social Security benefits, passage of the Social Security & Marriage Equality Act, introduced by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), would address the issue. For veterans benefits, passage of the Charlie Morgan Act, introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), would address the issue.

What’s notable about passage of the amendment, which was approved by a 57-43 vote, is that 11 Republicans — including those on the record opposing same-sex marriage — joined Democrats in voicing support for attaching it to the budget for fiscal year 2016.

Schatz, who was joined in introducing the amendment by Murray and Shaheen, talked about the significance of the vote in a statement on Thursday.

“Gay couples legally married in any state should be entitled to veterans and Social Security benefits identical to any other married couples,” Schatz said. “Tonight, 11 Republicans joined Democrats in recognizing that gay couples deserve equal treatment, regardless of where they live. We still have work to do to, but this is progress and a win for equal rights. I thank Sen. Murray and Sen. Shaheen for their leadership on this important issue.”

The 11 Republicans who voted for the amendment were Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Of these senators, only four — Collins, Kirk, Murkowski and Portman — are on the record in support for marriage equality (although only Collins and Kirk signed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down bans on same-sex marriage).

The presence of Tillis among these senators is particularly notable because he sought in his previous capacity as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives to defend his state’s ban on same-sex marriage in the courts.

Gregory Angelo, executive director for National Log Cabin Republicans, said the vote demonstrates growing support among Republicans for LGBT rights.

“Common-sense conservatives are emerging in ever-greater numbers who understand that committed same-sex couples merely want to live their lives in quiet dignity,” Angelo said. “Shrewd Republicans in the United States Senate — and across the country — see the writing on the wall on the marriage equality issue, and are striking a respectful — if not outright accepting — tone with the realization that gay families are now a permanent part of the fabric of our nation.”

In a statement, Shaheen talked about the significant of approval of the amendment in terms of ensuring same-sex couples have parity with opposite-sex couples for veterans benefits.

“No one who has served in uniform or their family should be denied veterans benefits they’ve earned because of whom they love or where they live,” Shaheen said. “The Senate’s support for ending this discriminatory policy is an encouraging step toward righting this wrong.”

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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