On Thursday, a bipartisan coalition of senators who support a bill to protect same-sex and interracial marriage rights announced that a vote on the bill would be delayed — hours before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is expected to prepare the legislation for a vote early next week a week.
“The Respect for Marriage Act is a simple but important step that provides security for millions of Americans in loving marriages,” the bill’s chief negotiators, Democrats Tammy Baldwin and Kirsten Sinema and Republicans Susan Collins, Rob Portman and Tom Tillis, said in a statement. “Through bipartisan cooperation, we have created common sense language that respects religious freedom and the diverse beliefs of Americans, while upholding our vision that marriage embodies the highest ideals of love, devotion and family.” We asked Leader Schumer for additional time and we appreciate that he agreed.”
The announcement is an abrupt change in the legislation’s expected timeline and could delay a long-awaited vote until the midterm elections. Baldwin and the bill’s GOP backers have been involved in ongoing negotiations for the secured the 10 Republican votes is needed to break the Senate filibuster and pass the legislation, which includes drafting new language to include explicit references to religious freedom.
But the announcement of the vote delay Thursday afternoon suggests those changes did not secure the remaining six GOP votes the bill needs (four Republican senators have already come out in support of the measure). “Leader Schumer is extremely disappointed that there are not 10 Republicans in the Senate willing to vote yes on marriage equality legislation right now,” Justin Goodman, Schumer’s spokesman, said in a statement. “Because Leader Schumer’s primary goal is to pass this important legislation, he will adhere to the bipartisan group of senators’ request to delay action, and he is 100 percent committed to bringing the legislation to a vote this year.”
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Wisconsin’s Baldwin remained upbeat about the legislation’s prospects: “When it gets to the floor, it will pass,” she said.
Portman, of Ohio, who worked with Baldwin to secure votes, told TIME on Thursday that they worked to add text clarifying that the bill would not negatively impact “faith-based organizations that provide services such as adoption.”
Senator Mitt Romney – a Republican from Utah who has defected from his party in the past – is among the senators whose votes the coalition is seeking. Romney told TIME on Thursday that he had been working with the bill’s negotiators on the “religious freedom provisions” and said his proposals were “generally included.” While Romney declined to say how he plans to vote in November, he added that he was “pleased with the progress that has been made.”
The bill, called the Respect for Marriage Act, would repeal the decades-old Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — which federally defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — and prevent state law from recognizing marriages based on “gender, race, ethnicity or national origin of those persons.” The bill was introduced by House Democrats this summer shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in a ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. LGBTQ advocates have expressed concern that the ruling could pave the way for the Supreme Court to overturn the 2015 ruling. Obergefell v. Hodges— which struck down DOMA and established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage — something Justice Clarence Thomas proposed doing in a concurring opinion in Dobbs.
The bill passed the House 267-157 on July 19, surprising some advocates by securing the support of 47 Republicans, including members of the leadership. In the Senate, all 50 Democrats and four Republican senators — Portman, Tillis, Collins and Murkowski — support the bill.
Collins told TIME on Thursday that her coalition has received “a lot of excellent input and suggestions from our colleagues on religious freedom issues,” and added that she was pleased “to see how constructive everyone has been in giving us suggestions.”
It’s not yet clear whether the inclusion of the religious freedom language will secure the remaining six GOP votes needed for passage. Romney told TIME that he is “studying” the proposed new language, which has not been publicly released. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who LGBTQ advocates lobbied to support the bill, did not comment on the proposed text changes. Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa also declined to comment until they read the new language.
Moving the vote to the midterms could significantly change the political calculus senators face on the ballot. Gallup 2021 survey found that a record 70% of the US population now supports same-sex marriage, including 83% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. Survey released by the advocacy group LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign on Sept. 14 found that 64 percent of likely voters in congressional battleground states support the passage of a bill codifying the right to same-sex marriage. In the House of Representatives, many of the Republican lawmakers who supported the Respect for Marriage Act are in close races this fall.
One GOP senator likely to feel political pressure over the vote is Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is in the midst of a close re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes. Johnson told reporters over the summer that he saw “no reason to oppose” the Respect for Marriage Act. But on Sept. 8, he announced he would not support the legislation “in its current state” because of concerns about religious freedoms. Johnson reiterated Thursday that he thinks the law needs “very strong protections for religious freedom,” but said he had not reviewed the new language circulated by Baldwin’s camp.
“If Democrats are serious about passing it,” says one Johnson aide, “they should slow it down.”
In a statement Thursday, the LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign advocacy group expressed disappointment at the delay in the vote. “The Respect for Marriage Act is a much-needed, popular, and bipartisan bill — and the lack of 10 Republican yes votes right now is extremely disappointing,” said Human Rights Campaign Interim President Johnny Madison. “The Law on Respect for Marriage should be put to a vote at the earliest possible moment – after Dobbs v. Jackson, it is clear that there is a timely, urgent need to declare that the days of debating marriage equality are over.
With a report by Eric Cortelesa/Washington
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