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Senators Press for a Gay Marriage Bill This Month
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Senators Press for a Gay Marriage Bill This Month

But winning enough Republicans to avoid a filibuster may prove difficult.

Congress hasn’t historically been where progressives secure protections for same-sex marriage. 

The political battle largely played out in individual states. And it was the Supreme Court that ultimately legalized gay marriage nationwide, allowing Congress to avoid ever passing a law codifying the practice in all 50 states. The few times Congress has spoken on the issue have usually been to limit gay marriage, such as the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and outlining states’ rights to not recognize same-sex nuptials.

But now bipartisan duo Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Susan Collins hope to reach a legislative conclusion to the on-again, off-again debate in the next couple of weeks. They’re working to convince enough Republicans to support federal legal protections for gay marriages. Despite a 50-50 Senate, a fiercely divided political climate, and concerns about the bill’s religious liberty implications, they’re optimistic they can.

They spent the week reaching out to GOP senators and working on tweaks to the bill, titled the Respect for Marriage Act, but senators still left town Thursday afternoon without the 10 Republican supporters required for it to overcome a filibuster. Time is short, with a vote expected this month.

“We’ve worked really closely with those who have raised concerns, and I think we have language that will satisfy the concerns,” Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, told reporters this week.

Next week, when Baldwin expects to release updated text of the bill, will be pivotal. She said the new version will reflect changes Republican lawmakers have sought, such as explicit religious freedom safeguards and language clarifying the bill would not allow for polygamy. 

It’s unclear if the changes will be enough to win over the remaining Republicans needed to pass the measure. Several conservative GOP senators are poised to offer a competing amendment addressing their concerns.

A version of the bill passed the House over the summer, with 47 Republicans joining Democrats to support it. The legislation would require states to recognize marriages legally performed in other states. It would also repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. If the Senate approves a new version of the bill, the House would have to pass the measure again to send it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Proponents say the measure is needed after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. In his concurring opinion to that case, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the reasoning that sent abortion policy to the states could apply to other cases, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage across the United States in 2015. 

Many Republicans have resisted calls for legislation protecting gay marriages, arguing it is unlikely the Supreme Court will overturn Obergefell. Others, such as Collins and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, argue Congress should act to provide peace of mind to same-sex couples. 

In July, a coalition of conservative groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Ethics & Public Policy Center, and the Heritage Foundation, wrote to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to urge opposition to the bill.

“The truth is, while H.R. 8404 does nothing to change the status of, or benefits afforded to, same-sex marriage in light of Obergefell, it does much to endanger people of faith,” they wrote. “It is a startling expansion of what marriage means—and who may be sued if they disagree,” the letter continues. The letter to McConnell raises fears that the bill could be used to stop some faith-based organizations—such as foster care and adoption agencies—from contracting with the government.

Another primary focus of the letter is the polygamy problem: If any one state adopts extreme marriage laws such as polygamy, which is currently not recognized in any state, other states would be bound by the bill to recognize marriages from that state as legal. The Senate sponsors are including language emphasizing marriage is between just two people, Collins, a Maine Republican, said. 

As for religious liberty, Baldwin summarized the amendment on Thursday: It makes clear that in the event of passage of the bill, “all existing precedent remains.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, told The Dispatch Baldwin’s description of the religious freedom amendment was “not quite as fulsome as I’ve heard the language is. But maybe everybody’s saying the same thing. Let’s look at the bill and see what it looks like.”

Depending on that, Blunt is a potential backer, along with Sen. Mitt Romney. So, too, is Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, although he’s grown more frustrated that he has to participate in the debate at all.

“I always supported civil unions,” he said Wednesday. “Never felt this bill was necessary. This is just Democrats opening up a wound that doesn’t need to be opened up.”

Johnson complained again Thursday: “It’s completely unnecessary. It’s just divisive. Democrats are using this, they won’t let a wound heal.”

Shelby on the Space Launch System’s Latest Scrub

Despite two scrubbed launch attempts within a week, senators don’t appear to be spending much time thinking about the years-overdue and billions-over-budget Space Launch System rocket program Congress mandated more than a decade ago.

When asked in Senate hallways this week, several members of the subcommittees that deal with NASA didn’t answer questions about it scrubbing the first two attempts to launch the unmanned Artemis 1 mission to orbit the moon.

One senator we caught up with did, though: Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who has been one of the most prominent advocates of the Space Launch System (SLS) since its inception. NASA intends to use the heavy-lift rocket for its Artemis missions to the moon. (Development of the SLS has incidentally created thousands of jobs in Shelby’s state.)

“They need success,” he told The Dispatch on Thursday, while praising the engineers behind it.

The SLS faced criticism this month after two launch scrubs—once on August 29 and another on September 3—due to technical problems and a liquid hydrogen leak. Some point out the potential for scrubs like these stems from the congressional push for the SLS to use old space shuttle components; liquid hydrogen propellant was as finicky during the shuttle era as it remains today.

“Effectively, Saturday’s ‘launch’ attempt was the sixth time NASA has tried to completely fuel the first and second stages of the rocket, and then get deep into the countdown,” Ars Technica’s Eric Berger wrote. “To date, it has not succeeded with any of these fueling tests, known as wet dress rehearsals. On Saturday, the core stage’s massive liquid hydrogen tank, with a capacity of more than 500,000 gallons, was only 11 percent full when the scrub was called.”

Earlier this year, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin told lawmakers the true cost of each of the first four SLS launches will be $4.1 billion, roughly double an earlier $2 billion estimate. He also testified in a congressional hearing that permissive contracts in developing the Artemis program have allowed poor performance by contractors. (Read our interview with Rep. Don Beyer, the chair of the House space subcommittee, about this hearing here.)

It’s not clear whether Congress will have the appetite to fund the use of SLS rockets for years to come, especially as the private sector launches more cost-effective vehicles. Still, the program remains popular among some lawmakers for spurring economic activity in their states.

Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has power to keep pushing the program, but he will retire at the end of this Congress. 

Does he believe his colleagues will continue to fund SLS missions going forward? 

“Well, they’re not going to fund failure,” he said.

Congressional Leaders Mourn Queen Elizabeth II

  • From House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “Queen Elizabeth embodied the highest spirit of civic duty: earning the reverence of her people and the respect of the world. Her Majesty capably shepherded the United Kingdom through great turbulence and transition. As the Head of the Commonwealth, she helped advance a new global order of security, prosperity and peace. She took an important step toward hope and healing in 2011, when she made history as the first British monarch to visit Ireland in a century.  Under history’s brightest spotlight, Queen Elizabeth offered a masterclass in grace and strength, power and poise.”

  • From Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “For 70 long years, from the aftermath of World War II well into the 21st century, across 15 different Prime Ministers, through great triumphs and great challenges, the Queen’s steady leadership safeguarded the land she loved. Despite spending nearly three quarters of a century as one of the most famous and admired individuals on the planet, the Queen made sure her reign was never really about herself — not her fame, not her feelings, not her personal wants or needs. She guided venerable institutions through modern times using timeless virtues like duty, dignity, and sacrifice. She offered our contemporary world a living master class it needed badly.”

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.