Gay Federal Employees Closer to Benefits

Domestic-partner legislation moves through Senate committee, only one Republican senator supporting

On Wednesday morning, Dec. 16, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee favorably reported the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act out of committee on an 8-1 vote. The mark-up, which took less than a half hour, stood in stark contrast to the several hours of debate that the bill faced before being reported out of the relevant House committee in November.

The bill, spearheaded by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) in the House, would make the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees eligible for health care and other benefits. It also would make those partners subject to nepotism rules and other similar government regulations.

Bill lead co-sponsor and Committee Chair Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) expressed strong support for the bill, but he also sent a warning to the Obama administration, saying, ”We will not move this on the floor of the Senate until we get the explicit offsets” from the Office of Personnel Management.

The Senate co-sponsorship of the bill by a Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, was another distinction from the House bill, which had received no Republican support in committee.

As later discussed by Collins, though, OPM Director John Berry had told the committee during its hearing on the bill that he would work with Congress to provide it with the ”efficiencies and improvements” that would provide cost offsets to pay for the bill. According to both Lieberman and Collins, he has not yet done so.

Collins said, ”I’m very disappointed that OPM has not come to us with the explicit offsets.”

Unlike the House mark-up where several amendments were offered by proponents and opponents of the bill, today’s Senate mark-up contained only two amendments, both offered by proponents of the legislation and agreed to by the committee.

The first was a substitute amendment offered by the chair, similar to that offered in the House, to clarify and correct some specific elements of the legislation. The other amendment, to require a GAO report regarding the bill’s effect on government recruitment and retention efforts, was offered by Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and was similar to that offered by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) in the House.

The sole dissenting vote at the hearing came from Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the only Republican other than Collins present for the mark-up vote. Although not counted in the vote, those not present at the hearing can have a proxy vote recorded for them to put their position on the record. The proxy votes on this bill were 2-5, with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) being the only Democratic ”no” proxy vote. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) provided no instructions as to his position on the bill, but all other Republicans recorded ”no” proxy votes.

Officials at OPM did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

UPDATE: Berry responded in a statement late Wednesday, Dec. 16, saying, “I am very pleased at today’s Committee action and commend Chairman Lieberman and Senator Collins for their swift action and leadership.” He continued, “I am confident that we will be able to work with OMB and the Committee to address the concerns raised today so that forward progress can continue.”

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