White House officials suddenly saw an area where they could demonstrate action to a base that is frustrated and at times demoralized. After decades of not legislatively protecting federal abortion rights — saying the issue was a settled matter already decided by the courts — Democrats now see a way to protect same-sex marriage from potential legal challenges.
Republicans, on the other hand, have become increasingly animated around social and cultural issues — with extended debates over Dr. Seuss books and Mr. Potato Headfalse claims of “grooming,” and legislation around bathrooms and school curriculum — but a portion of the party has determined that same-sex marriage is a rite that required defending.
It marks a shift for many in a party that has gone from staunch opponents to same-sex marriage in the early 2000s to indifference by the time it became law in 2015 to now outright supporters.
While the timing remains unclear, and prospects of passage are far from certain, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) said on Wednesday that he is working to get enough Republicans to bring the legislation to the Senate floor. The Respect for Marriage Act, in addition to protecting the right of same-sex couples to marry, would also protect interracial marriage and repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
“This legislation was so important,” Schumer said in a Wednesday morning speech. “I was really impressed by how much bipartisan support it got in the House.”
“I think it’s important,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is retiring at the end of this term. In March 2013, Portman announced he supported same-sex marriage, a surprise decision that he reached two years after his son, Will, told him that he was gay.
“It’s the right policy, and I think it’s an important message to send,” Portman added. “I’ve been told by some of my Republican colleagues this morning, ‘It’s just a message bill.’ I said, ‘But it’s an important message.’ ”
Meaning. Thom Tillis (RN.C.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also indicated they would probably support the legislation, which was already co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The four Republican senators speaking in support means Democrats would need six more to meet the 60-vote threshold required to avoid a filibuster, assuming all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats vote in favor, as expected.
But it was clear on Wednesday that neither party was particularly prepared for the shifts in the debate, with both sides surprised at the level of Republican support in the House on Tuesday evening. For Democrats, it meant a chance at actually codifying same-sex marriage protections into law and not just having a political albatross to hang on Republicans.
For Republicans in the Senate, it meant a degree of scrambling to come up with a unified strategy.
They had initially thought they could simply dismiss the matter as a political exercise, but the 47 House Republicans — some from swing districts, others who rarely cross party lines — illustrated the political risks of not supporting an issue that has public opinion firmly on its side.
Some had also previously argued that legislative protections for same-sex marriage were unnecessary because it was settled law. But Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in his competition to the ruling that overturned federal abortion protections in Roe v. wade, wrote that there were future cases in which the court had a “duty to correct the error” of previous rulings, citing same-sex marriage among them. Those views were reinforced in recent days by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
“He’s opened a lot of doors that no other justice has walked through,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said of the Thomas opinion.
Romney, who was governor of Massachusetts when the state became the first to legalize same-sex marriage even though he opposed the decision, said he hadn’t decided if he would support the Senate legislation.
“Clearly the legislation from the House is unnecessary given that fact that the law is the same,” he said. “We will take a look at it as it comes our way.”
Several Republicans asserted they had not yet read the legislation or claimed to be unaware of the House’s actions.
“I haven’t looked at it yet,” Sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.) said.
“Did it pass? I haven’t even seen it yet,” Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said.
Asked whether she supports same-sex marriage in general, Lummis said, “I haven’t seen the bill yet. I’m going to see what the bill says.”
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb) said, “I haven’t looked at it,” when asked for any initial thoughts on the bill.
The House vote on same-sex marriage was the latest response to the overturning of Roe v. wade friend heightened concern that other rights could also be restricted. The House last week codified access to reproductive rights protections that were outlined in Roe, and also granted protections to those who travel out of state to obtain an abortion. That measure only gained support from three Republicans.
The House on Thursday is scheduled to vote on the Right to Contraception Act, which would “protect a person’s ability to access contraceptives and to engage in contraception, and to protect a health care provider’s ability to provide contraceptives, contraception, and information related to contraception.”
House Republicans expect fewer from their caucus to support that legislation, with party leadership arguing that Democrats have crafted a bill that is too broad and rushed it to the floor.
Rep. Nancy Mace (RS.C.) — unlike other women in her party who have said such decisions should be left up to states — argued that the rollback of Roe v. wade opens the door for Congress to consider questions about marriage equality and contraception.
“Those are things we should be protecting. We have an opportunity to, and we should be doing that because when you overturn a case like Roe v. wade and look at the role of federalism, there is a role for Congress and the states,” she said about this week’s votes.
Mace voted in support of marriage equality Tuesday and hopes to vote in support of the contraception bill Thursday if the legislation doesn’t have “poison pills in it.”
The White House has been closely following the congressional actions and was tracking the positions of individual Senate Republicans on the same-sex marriage legislation. But White House officials were still trying to calibrate how much to get involved publicly, attempting to determine whether public pressure from President Biden would be an asset or a hindrance in securing more Republican votes.
“He is a proud champion for the right for people to marry whom they love and is grateful to see bipartisan support for that right,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “He believes it is non-negotiable and the Senate should act swiftly to get this to the president’s desk. He wants to sign this. So we need this legislation, and we urge Congress to move as quickly as possible.”
She declined to say whether Biden was personally involved or would call senators and urge them to support the legislation.
But White House officials say same-sex marriage is a unique area among modern social-issue politics, one where Republicans are willing to move but not as an indication of other shifts.
In surveys done by Gallup, which has long tracked public opinion on same-sex marriage, support hit a new high this year, with 71 percent saying same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid. In 1996, 27 percent said same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, and support has steadily climbed since.
Republican support for same-sex marriage has roughly doubled over the past decade in Gallup polls, reaching 55 percent in May. Support among those over age 65 — typically a group of reliable voters — has also increased significantly, from 39 percent in 2011 to 58 percent this year.
But on abortion rights, the trends have been far more consistent, with support still in the majority but not shifting dramatically.
This year, for example, Gallup found that 58 percent of Americans said they would not like to see Roe overturned — the same share that had that opinion in 1989.
In an annual measure that Gallup does on matters that Americans believe are “morally acceptable,” 92 percent in its most recent survey said birth control was morally acceptable, including 98 percent of liberals and 88 percent of conservatives. When Gallup first asked about the morality of birth control in 2012, 89 percent said it was morally acceptable.
Following the vote on Tuesday, several House Republicans explained their decisions in more detail.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (RN.Y.) reflected on some of the shifts within both parties. As a state lawmaker in New York, she had voted against a bill legalizing same-sex marriage — a vote she came to regret.
“Over the past decade, I have attended two weddings of couples who deserve equal recognition and protection under the law,” she said, in explaining her decision to vote in favor of codifying same-sex marriage into federal law.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) defended his vote, saying he wanted to protect interracial marriages and alluding to problems that could come if marriages were nullified.
“Agree or disagree with same-sex marriage, my vote affirmed my long-held belief that Americans who enter into legal agreements deserve to live their lives without the threat that our federal government will dissolve what they’ve built,” he said.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who voted in favor of protecting same-sex marriage but also criticized Democrats for rushing the legislation, put it more bluntly.
“I could give a rat’s caboose who somebody marries, relates with, falls in love with, anything else as a piece of it, their gender or anything else,” he said. “I wasn’t going to get mixed up in the politics of it.”
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.