Democrats Punt Same-Sex Marriage Vote Until After Midterm Elections

Supporters of legislation to protect marriage equality couldn't convince enough Senate Republicans to pass the measure next week.

WASHINGTON ― Democrats on Thursday announced the Senate won’t vote on legislation to protect same-sex marriage until after the November midterm elections, because of insufficient support for the measure among Republicans.

Supporters of the Respect for Marriage Act were hoping to vote on and pass the bill next week, before the Senate recesses for the month of October ahead of the elections. But senators involved in talks over the measure failed to garner at least 10 Republican votes needed to break a filibuster.

“We’re very confident that the bill will pass, but we will need a little more time,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Same-sex marriage is currently legal nationwide due to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling. But given the risk of the conservative-majority court overturning its past decision, like it has on abortion, Democrats and some Republicans are pushing to codify same-sex marriage rights in legislation. The House passed the bill in July with 47 GOP votes.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay elected senator, is helping lead efforts to pass same-sex marriage protections after the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay elected senator, is helping lead efforts to pass same-sex marriage protections after the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Senate Democrats this week agreed to several changes sought by conservatives, including making sure the bill would not protect polygamous relationships or marriage between more than two individuals, and that it would not infringe on religious institutions. Conservatives groups like the Heritage Foundation argued the bill would somehow lead to federal recognition of polygamy.

But those changes weren’t enough for many Republicans. Some viewed the bill as unnecessary, arguing the Supreme Court would never overturn marriage equality despite the fact that it did so on abortion.

“I’m a pretty traditional guy. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Thursday, making it clear he opposed the bill.

Other Republicans were loath to cast a vote that would anger their base before a pivotal election. They also didn’t want to be seen as getting boxed in by Democrats.

“They’ll get more votes in November and December,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) predicted on Thursday. “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 till after the election.”

The Missouri Republican, a supporter of same-sex marriage, is retiring this year. He’s seen as a potential vote for the measure, though he has yet to say so publicly.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is no stranger to scheduling messaging votes. He could have easily forced a vote on the matter, putting every Republican on the record before the election, as some Democrats and activists had called for. His decision not to do so reflected his desire to pass a law in good faith, according to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

“It means the Democrats want to get a result, which I appreciate, I really do ... It takes a lot of the political sting out of it, to say this is not about a midterm election,” Portman said.

It’s unclear how many more GOP senators are needed to pass the bill. Only four have expressed public support for it: Portman, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.). Baldwin and Portman were spotted trying to wrangle more GOP votes on the Senate floor on Thursday, but their efforts didn’t seem to go well.

In the past, the Senate has often punted difficult votes to the lame-duck session of Congress, which occurs after a November election but prior to a new session convening in January. It’s possible the same-sex marriage bill gets a stand-alone vote or simply gets rolled into another must-pass bill before the end of the year.

“My personal preference is to put everyone on the record ahead of the elections, but I understand the decisions that are made about when the prospects are best for passing the measure,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Thursday. “I want a law, not just a bill.”

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