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 Capitol Hill.

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 Human 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 threshold.

“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 them through.”

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.