Metro Weekly

Senate to Hold Marriage Equality Vote in “Coming Weeks”

Despite Democratic leader's promise of a vote, there is a limited amount of time in which to pass the marriage equality bill.

Tammy Baldwin and Susan Collins – Senate Democrats, via Flickr and Gage Skidmore

A bipartisan group of senators has begun finalizing last-minute language to be added to a bill that would enshrine the right to same-sex marriage and interracial marriage into law, although it is unclear when precisely such a bill will be brought up for debate given other pressing legislative matters.

The group of five senators — Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — met on Wednesday to discuss language clarifying that the bill, known as the “Respect for Marriage Act,” would not infringe on the rights of those who disagree with same-sex marriage.

The meeting took place after the senators, who spent part of the August recess lobbying their fellow senators to vote for the bill, received feedback from on-the-fence Republicans who expressed concerns about the bill’s lack of sufficient protections for religious liberty, according to The Washington Post.

The bill needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, meaning at least 10 Senate Republicans would have to support it in order to end debate on the measure and hold a final up-or-down vote on it.

The measure previously passed the House of Representatives in July, earning support from all of the lower chamber’s Democrats and 47 House Republicans. The Senate is the final hurdle to passage.

If the Senate approves the proposed religious liberty language additions, the legislation would have to head back to the Democratic-led House for passage.

But while passage in the lower chamber would not be a problem, the scheduling of the vote in a limited window, as well other pieces of legislation demanding congressional members’ attention, may create additional hurdles.

Because the bipartisan group of senators believes they have the necessary Republican votes to overcome a filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday that he plans to schedule a vote on the measure “in the coming weeks,” which would force Republicans to go on record ahead of the midterm elections.

Collins has expressed concern that Schumer will play political games with the bill by delaying a vote on it, telling Politico that she hopes he will schedule a vote on the bill this month.

Further complicating the issue, Congress must approve stopgap legislation to fund the government by Sept. 30 in order to avoid a partial shutdown, which will take up a significant amount of time and bandwidth.

In addition, Republicans have balked at President Biden’s recent proposal for $47 billion in funds to fight COVID-19 and monkeypox, as well as provide foreign aid to support Ukraine in defending itself against the ongoing Russian invasion of the country. They are demanding votes on border security that could force Democrats to take unpopular positions ahead of this November’s midterm elections, reports the New York Post.

Besides the debate over the Biden administration’s spending priorities, Schumer also wants to vote on President Biden’s judicial nominations, which means senators have to spend hours debating judges’ qualifications, with up to 30 hours of debate on U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominees.

Because of this limited time period in which to pass bills before members return to their home districts to campaign throughout the month of October, some Democrats previously floated the idea of attaching the Respect for Marriage Act to the must-pass government funding bill.

Republicans said such an act would not only politicize the issue, but would be viewed as an affront, prompting Collins to warn that such antics would simply cause Republicans who might otherwise be supportive of the marriage equality bill to abandon it.

Against this backdrop, Baldwin and Collins, the two chief sponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act, have been trying to solidify support for the bill, wary that any disagreements over other legislation could prompt Republican senators to “punish” Democrats by sinking the bill.

The two have also sought to dispel misinformation, eagerly spread by right-wing media and pushed by opponents of same-sex marriage, about what the bill does. 

Writing in an op-ed for The Washington Post, Baldwin and Collins pushed back against common lines of attack, noting that the bill would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage. The federal government would be required to “recognize a marriage if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed, regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”

“This legislation would not, in fact, legalize or recognize polygamous relationships or marriages,” the senators wrote. “Polygamous marriages are already illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and this bill would not authorize or recognize them.

“Moreover, religious liberty is a founding tenet of our republic, and the Respect for Marriage Act honors that principle. Our bipartisan legislation leaves intact religious liberties and protections afforded to individuals and organizations under federal law.

“We recognize that some might need more clarity on this point, and that is why we have worked together with our Senate colleagues to develop clarifying language to the legislation that makes it clear what the Respect for Marriage Act would not do — it will not take away or alter any religious liberty or conscience protections.”

The push for the Respect for Marriage Act during an election year took many people by surprise, but was largely prompted by a concurring opinion, issued by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as part of a case overturning the federal right to obtain an abortion earlier this year, which underscored how easily courts could reverse years of precedent and call longstanding legal rights into question.

In that concurring opinion, Thomas suggested that the Supreme Court should, as a matter of policy, revisit other past “rights” that were granted by courts, rather than approved through the more cumbersome legislative process.

Revisiting those issues could potentially result in the reversal of decisions that affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry, the decriminalization of gay sex, and the right of married couples to use contraception, and could even extend to the include the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which recognized the right of interracial couples to marry. 

Democrats took Thomas’s decision as a warning shot, prompting them to take action to codify into law any rights that are not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, in order to avoid future legal challenges.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, has announced that they have leveraged their relationships with members of the business community by circulating a letter, signed by 226 companies employing over 8.5 million Americans, urging the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act.

The organization has also mobilized more than 43,000 members and volunteers to email or call their U.S. senators’ offices to ask them to support the marriage equality bill.

According to HRC, those volunteers have made over 10,000 phone calls and sent over 33,000 emails to senators representing the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana.

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