GOP Leaders Have Little Appetite for DOMA Legislation

Elahe Izadi

The Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t close the door on the gay-marriage debate, but Republican leaders are saying that the issue is one for the states and not for Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement that he’s “disappointed in the ruling,” but he added that “a robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”

Likewise, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said, “I’m disappointed in this decision, and the marriage debate will continue in the states.”

It’s no surprise that the Republican leadership is looking to the states. GOP leaders maintained a low profile on the case, even as Democrats criticized them for authorizing some $3 million to defend the law through the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group.

Public opinion has also been shifting in favor of gay marriage over the past decade. Even the Republican National Committee recommended that the GOP be more inclusive of gay voters.

“They do not want to be defined by it, and they know raising it to the national level would define them,” said senior Brookings fellow Jonathan Rauch. He called the debate “an increasingly divisive issue and a loser for Republicans.”

Yet there are still some in the party who favor stepping back into the arena. In a 5-4 ruling, the court struck down Section 3 of the act, which prevents same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, and conservative lawmakers blasted the decision during a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he will introduce a federal amendment to the Constitution this week to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Huelskamp, known for bucking his party’s leadership, said he had “tremendous gratitude for the speaker of the House and Leader Cantor for their efforts to defend DOMA.” He doesn’t have cosponsors for his amendment. A similar amendment backed by President George W. Bush failed to garner enough votes in 2006.

But Huelskamp nonetheless argued that the measure should still draw Republican support. “It’s a steep hill to climb, but it’s one that leadership should be willing to go on,” he said. “Many of them supported it a few years ago, and many of them are still here.”

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., a moderate who discouraged the House leadership from bringing an abortion bill to the floor for a vote this month, said his initial inclination is to turn away from such efforts.

“The issue is the economy and jobs right now,” he said. “I would be hesitant to engage in any legislation right now.”

Democrats, too, have changed tacks on the issue over the years. Congress passed DOMA in 1996, and it was signed into law by President Clinton. The Obama administration later instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the law.

In the Senate, Wednesday’s Court ruling resolved a potentially prickly issue for Democrats. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that in light of the ruling, he won’t seek a floor vote on his amendment to the immigration bill dealing with same-sex couples.

“With the Supreme Court’s decision today, it appears that the antidiscrimination principle that I have long advocated will apply to our immigration laws, and bi-national couples and their families can now be united under the law,” Leahy said in a statement.

Of course, many questions on the issue still remain unanswered. Additional legislation could be required to resolve issues surrounding employee benefits, which would be a tall order in the House. Todd Solomon, a benefits expert at McDermott Will & Emery, said that “a lot of it could be done at the agency level.”

Also, it’s still unclear what happens to couples who are married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage but then move to one that doesn’t.

To that end, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Wednesday reintroduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would overturn the Defense of Marriage Act in its entirety.

Such a vote—particularly in the Senate, where a number of lawmakers have come out in favor of gay marriage in recent months—could provide legislators an opportunity to go on the record with their positions.