September 17, 2015 at 4:03 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
House committee votes down measure to help gay veterans

Dina Titus, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, Nevada, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) introduced a VA benefits bill for same-sex spouses. (Photo public domain)

A measure that would have changed federal law to reflect that gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans are entitled to spousal benefits narrowly failed in a House committee on Thursday — thanks in part to a Democrat who voted “present” on the amendment.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs rejected the amendment, which was along the lines of the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, by a vote of 10-12. The measure would have changed definition of spouse under Title 38 to clarify that not all spouses are persons of a different sex.

Rep. Dina TItus (D-Nev.), who sponsors the standalone bill, introduced the measure as an amendment to the American Heroes COLA Act, which seeks generally to increase compensation for veterans as benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act increase.

In a statement, Titus said called the vote “a slap in face” to gay and lesbian service members who’ve served the country and their spouses.

“As federal representatives and as members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we have a responsibility to care for our nation’s veterans and their families, gay or straight,” Titus said. “Today we had an opportunity to put this issue behind us and move forward to concentrate on the many challenges facing our nation’s veterans. Rest assured I will not back down in this fight for equality. There are those who continue to stand in the way of progress; but remember, the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice.”

The measure failed largely along party lines. Eight Democrats and two Republicans — Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) — voted “yes,” but 12 Republicans voted “no.”

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the committee, voted “present” on the amendment. In a statement, she said she didn’t support the measure to protect the integrity of the base legislation.

“Following the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision in favor of marriage equality, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs issued a policy statement allowing for all same sex couples to be eligible for VA benefits,” Brown said. “I felt that the Titus amendment, if passed, would jeopardize the underlying base legislation, which would permanently provide for a cost of living increase for our veterans, without making Congress pass a new COLA each year. I have supported Rep. Titus’ legislation in the past, which ‘clarifies that not all spouses are of a different sex,’ but voted ‘present’ today to preserve the agreement in the base bill before the committee.”

According to the congressional scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign, Brown’s position on marriage equality is unclear because she has never given a statement on it.

Also not voting was Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), but he asked he be recorded as “yes” in the record, according to Titus’ office.

It’s wasn’t immediately clear what impact the legislation would have at this point if it became law because full spousal veterans benefits are now flowing to eligible married same-sex couples across the country following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality nationwide.

Mike Naft, a Titus spokesperson, said his boss proposed the amendment because she thinks an update to U.S. Code is necessary following the Supreme Court decision.

“This wouldn’t be the first time the Committee has updated the Code to reflect the reality of the law as it changes,” Naft said. “It took till 1986 for the Committee to pass legislation…that included changes in the law to reflect the fact that not all service members are men, and that not all spouses are wives. The fact remains that Title 38 still reads that a ‘spouse’ is a ‘person of the opposite sex.'”

In September 2014, Titus had previously sought to pass the measure as an amendment to larger legislation, but the amendment failed on a 12-13 vote.

Ashley Broadway, president of the American Military Partner Association, said the House committee’s vote on the measure was disappointing.

“How in good conscience could any member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs vote against Rep. Titus’ amendment affirming equality for LGBT veterans and their families?” Broadway said. “We are deeply disappointed in those who voted against updating the outdated language in the VA statute, especially in Rep. Corrine Brown and her unexpected lack of support for marriage equality.”

Here’s the breakdown of the vote:

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.)
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.)
Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.)
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.)
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.)
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.)
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)
Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.)

Not Voting, but will be requesting he be marked ‘Yea’ in the record
Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.)

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.)
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.)
Rep. David Roe (R-Tenn.)
Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.)
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas)
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio)
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.)
Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.)
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.)
Del. Amata Radewagen (R-American Samoa)
Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.)

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.)

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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