Respect for Marriage Act clears key hurdle, poised to become law

The Respect for Marriage Act wasn’t supposed to be part of the to-do list for the current Congress. Marriage equality was already the law of the land in every state, and there didn’t appear to be any need to pass new federal legislation.

But in June, things changed. When Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he said the high court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling on marriage equality, among others, was “demonstrably erroneous” and should be “reconsidered.” It was part of a series of developments in GOP politics that suggested growing opposition to same-sex marriage, despite the apparent end of the dispute in 2015.

Democrats, led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, pushed the Respect for Marriage Act to codify the status quo for same-sex and interracial couples into federal law. Yesterday, as NBC News reported, they scored a major victory.

The Senate passed landmark legislation Tuesday that would codify federal protection for marriages of same-sex and interracial couples, with Democrats securing enough votes to overcome opposition from most Republicans. … The measure now returns to the House for a final vote before it can go to President Joe Biden, who said he looks forward to enacting it.

The Respect for Marriage Act cleared the Senate with 61 votes, including support from 12 Senate Republicans. (Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia missed the vote — he’s on the campaign trail ahead of next week’s runoff election — though his support was unnecessary.)

A House vote could come as early as today, and the measure is likely to be signed into law soon after.

The legislation — the result of bipartisan negotiations — is relatively narrow, but will achieve some key goals. As NBC News’ report added:

  • The bill requires the federal government to recognize valid marriages between two individuals.
  • It ensures full benefits for marriages “regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
  • If the Supreme Court were to overturn the right to same-sex marriage, and red states were to roll back the clock, Americans could go to other states and get married even if it’s not legal in their states.
  • It also repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, which has been ruled unconstitutional, but is still on the books.

“This will ensure that wherever you live, if you get married in a state where it’s legal, they have to recognize it wherever you are,” a Democratic aide explained. “And you have the same rights, benefits, responsibilities and freedoms wherever you are.”

As the process comes to a successful end, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the strategic gamble Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took with the calendar.

Circling back to our recent coverage, the original plan was to hold a vote before the midterm elections. For Democratic strategists, this looked like a win-win scenario: If Senate Republicans backed the legislation, it would pass, become law, and protect millions of American families. If Senate Republicans balked, Democrats would use this against them, seizing on this as fresh evidence of the GOP’s radicalism and regressive perspective.

In September, however, Democratic leaders backed off in the hopes that more time would lead to more votes.

In fact, Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership, agreed that proponents would be better off after the midterms. “If I wanted to pass that, and I was the majority leader and I wanted to get as many votes as they can possibly get, I’d wait until after the election,” the retiring Missouri lawmaker said.

The result risky: The governing majority was so determined to actually get this done that Schumer and other Democratic leaders reluctantly decided to wait in the hopes that the Republican votes would materialize after the pressures of the election season had subsided.

What guarantees were there that Republicans will follow through and help end a filibuster during the lame-duck session? None — but the gamble paid off anyway.

There have been some major civil rights breakthroughs in recent years, and this is an important addition to the list.

Postscript: There is a familiarity to the circumstances. Twelve years ago, Senate Democrats tried to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, but they couldn’t overcome a Republican filibuster. After the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats tried again. It worked: Then-Sen. John McCain all but begged his GOP colleagues not to allow openly gay Americans to serve in the military, but several Republicans — including some who’d backed the partisan filibuster months earlier — ignored him, sided with Democrats, and ended DADT.