Congress is preparing to vote on a bill
that would extend benefits to the same-sex partners of federal
employees after passage in committees from both houses. Wisconsin
Representative Tammy Baldwin's Domestic Partnership Benefits and
Obligations Act of 2009 (DPBO) is quickly wending its way through
The legislation would make the spouses
of gay and lesbian federal employees eligible for certain benefits
previously denied because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law
that prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay unions,
bars such benefits. DPBO would carve out an exception to the law.
The proposed law received a boost
Wednesday with passage out of a key Senate committee. Members OK'd
the bill with an 8 to 1 vote. Senator Robert F. Bennett, a
Republican, was the lone dissenter.
That is, Bennett was the lone in-person
“nay” vote; five additional Republicans voted against the bill by
proxy: Republican Senators Tom Coburn, John McCain, George V.
Voinovich and Lindsey Graham. Those members, along with Senator John
Ensign, who did not take a position on the bill, score low on the
Rights Campaign's (HRC) Congressional Scorecard, an annual report
that measures a lawmaker's support for gay rights. (Proxy votes are
not included in a final tally.)
One Democrat, Senator Mark Pryor of
Arkansas, also voted against the bill by proxy. But Senator Susan
Collins, the Republican ranking member on the committee and an early
co-sponsor of the measure, voted in favor.
Senator Roland Burris (D-Ill)
introduced a last-minute amendment to the Senate version of the bill
that calls for a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)
on the possible effects of the bill on the insurance premiums of
other employees. A similar measure introduced by Representative Mike
Quigley (D-Ill) was adopted in the House version.
Wednesday's vote was hailed by gay
activists and allies who urged passage by Congress.
Congressman Quigley told On Top
Magazine that the committee's quick work on the bill “speaks to
how very basic the rights at the heart of this measure are.”
“The federal government should be the
standard bearer for fair workplace practices, but has lagged behind
the top employers for too long,” Joe Solmonese, president of the
Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay rights
advocate, said in a statement. “DPBO recognizes that equal pay for
equal work is a value fundamental to American opportunity. We thank
Chairman Lieberman for his leadership in ushering this important
legislation through Congress.”
The bill is likely to receive a warm
greeting in the more liberal House, where a key panel approved the
measure with an overwhelming 23 to 12 vote in November. But
Wednesday's narrow passage out of committee suggests a turbulent ride
for the bill when it hits the Senate floor, where Democrats must
remain united to ensure passage.
Even Baldwin has questioned whether
Senate Democrats will unite behind the bill. She admitted as much
earlier this month at a GLBT leadership conference in San Francisco,
where she said several important gay rights bills will need to be
tucked inside unrelated bills to clear the Senate's 60-vote
“I haven't spoken to [Senate Leader
Harry Reid], but he is looking through that 60-vote challenge. My
sense is he is looking for bills he can attach things to,” Baldwin
said. “Senator Reid is committed to finding these vehicles to pass
The bill was introduced in both houses
in May – Baldwin sponsored the original House version, while
Lieberman backed the Senate's – and it received consideration by
the fall. Credit for the bill's fast track is given to President
Obama. “He has kept this issue alive,” openly gay Massachusetts
Representative Barney Frank said.