Metro Weekly

Senate Vote on Marriage Equality Bill Delayed Until After Midterms

Supporters say they need more time to convince reticent Republican senators to back the Respect for Marriage Act.

The Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building – Photo: Scrumshus, via Wikimedia.

The U.S. Senate will delay a vote on legislation legalizing same-sex marriage until after the November midterm elections following a request from a group of five lawmakers who have been working to amass support for the bill.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who is leading the charge on the issue along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said on Thursday that more time is needed to convince Republican senators to back the measure. Baldwin said the chief concern is that senators who are potential “yes votes” have expressed reticence about backing the bill unless there is language clarifying protections for people who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

“We’re very confident that the bill will pass, but we need a little more time,” Baldwin told CNN

Backers of the bill had previously hoped that it would receive an up-or-down vote prior to November’s elections, with Collins saying she hoped Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wouldn’t intentionally delay a vote on the measure to use as a cudgel against non-supportive senators in the midterms. 

Schumer had previously been expected to file for cloture on the bill this week, but the five senators lobbying Republicans — Baldwin, Collins, Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — said they had asked him for additional time. The five previously drafted a “consensus amendment” to add to the bill that protects religious liberty and the tax-exempt status of religious institutions. However, getting Republicans to solidly commit to backing the bill has proven difficult.

Due to Senate rules, and near-unanimous support from Democrats for the Respect for Marriage Act, backers need to garner at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster, as 60 votes are needed to start and stop debate on the legislation before it receives a final up-or-down vote.

Collins told Axios that other Republicans have provided their own suggestions with language they’d like to see added to the bill. For instance, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), said he has several amendments focusing on “religious freedom” that he wants added to the bill. His fellow home state senator, Sen. Mike Lee, has been circulating an amendment, along with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), to protect federal funding for religious nonprofits.

If passed, the bill, which would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, would recognize all legally-performed same-sex marriages and would prohibit any state from refusing to recognize such unions as valid. The bill previously passed the U.S. House of Representatives, 267-157, with 47 Republicans voting in favor of it.

Democrats, noting that they are in the extremely rare position of holding control over both legislative chambers, albeit narrowly, say that the time to pass any LGBTQ-related bill is to do it before the new Congress is seated in January.

LGBTQ advocates have been particularly motivated by the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, which they point to as evidence of the unreliability and untrustworthiness of the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Many fear the conservative justices will seek to overturn existing legal precedent by reversing the court’s position on cases that legalized same-sex marriage and decriminalized same-sex intimacy, especially in light of a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas calling for exactly that outcome.

Further complicating the timing of the vote, Congress must approve stopgap legislation to fund the government by Sept. 30 in order to avoid a partial shutdown. Senate Democrats also wish to hold votes on emergency spending for public health measures; foreign aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia; and on nominees for judicial appointments — which can require up to 30 hours of debate on each nominee for those seeking seats on appeals courts.Those other priorities meant that the vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, if it was to occur before the election, had a limited window in which to pass.

Portman, who had previously expressed concerns that supporters didn’t have the votes at this juncture, and fretted that there would not be enough time to convince on-the-fence Republicans to back the bill, told ABC affiliate News 5 Cleveland that allowing GOP senators “more time to digest” its provisions would make it more likely to amass the numbers needed.

Tillis told CNN that the bill’s chances could actually improve after the election has passed, as it will lessen the pressure on vulnerable Republicans who are up for re-election — who don’t want to risk alienating social conservatives whose votes they will need in November.

For example, Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican senator, had previously said he didn’t see any reason to oppose the Respect for Marriage Act, but has since come out against the bill, citing insufficient religious protections, following backlash from conservative groups. He — and other Republicans — have declined to commit to supporting the bill even if religious liberty provisions are added to it.

“Some said the timing of the vote was political. This is clearly, I think, a situation where we want to make our members feel comfortable with it, and I’m confident we’ll ultimately pass it,” Tillis said.

“If you do it after the election, it’s clearly not something that you’re doing just for a political purpose, and I think people will think about it more thoughtfully because of that, and a handful of them [will] likely to decide to be somewhere after the election than they would have been with [a] vote that was purely — likely — a political ploy,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is not seeking re-election and is considered a potential swing vote.

That said, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a fierce opponent of the bill, said that senators pushing for delaying a vote on the marriage equality bill are trying to avoid “electoral accountability,” and suggested that most senators are not as persuadable on the issue as supporters believe.

“I can’t imagine anybody’s undecided about it,” Cornyn told CNN.

LGBTQ advocates criticized the delay and expressed concerns that on-the-fence senators would actually lose their will to vote for the measure if they wait until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections, especially if Republicans fare well and assume the “lesson” they should take from the results is to double down on social conservatism.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, called the delay on the vote “shameful.”

“Equality under the law should be above election year politics,” Ellis said in a statement. “This bill is about treating families with dignity and respect — not about advancing individual political agendas. Any Senator who opposes bringing this bill to the floor as soon as possible is out of touch with the supermajority of Americans who know that marriage equality is about ensuring that everyone, including same-sex and interracial couples, can live with dignity and respect.”

Brian K. Bond, the executive director of PFLAG National, also criticized the delay.

“At a time when LGBTQ+ people, their families and allies are being targeted for harm in communities across the country, senators had a chance to firmly assert that every couple deserves the freedom to marry and that LGBTQ+ families deserve respect,” Bond said. “A vote for the Respect for Marriage Act is not about politics; it’s about our families and our values as a community and as a nation. Especially at this moment, it is disheartening that some Senators held back a vote because they are unwilling to publicly support something as fundamental as love.”

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