by Timothy Kunken
At the beginning of September, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that the Senate would enshrine federal protections for the right to both same-sex marriage and interracial marriage in a new bill. When this was announced, he told reporters that “a vote on marriage equality will happen on the Senate floor in the coming weeks.”
However, the date for this vote is now expected to be farther away than first thought. On September 15, the Senate told reporters that the vote was pushed back until after the midterm elections, citing uncertain Republican support as the primary reason.
The bill, titled the “Respect for Marriage Act,” had already passed a vote by the House of Representatives in July of this year. It seeks to replace the previous federal law regarding marriage, titled the “Defense of Marriage Act.” This law, passed in 1996, excluded same-sex marriage as a legitimate and protected form of marriage, allowing states to pass laws against it. This remained in effect until the law’s provisions were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in cases such as United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).
The new law, titled the “Respect for Marriage Act (ROMA),” will list same-sex marriage and interracial marriage as federally protected. This means that no state can restrict or ban these forms of marriage ever again. If “ROMA” were successfully signed into law, all forms of marriage would be protected regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin,” according to congress.gov.
This bill had already passed the House of Representatives in July, and would be signed by the president only after passing in the Senate. Upon Majority Leader Schumer’s announcement, a bipartisan group of 5 senators set out to attract fellow senators to vote for the bill. Particularly, the 3 Republican members — Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — sought out to convince those within their party to throw their support behind it. The goal was to shore up at least 10 Republican senators in order to surpass the 60 votes required to pass laws, assuming the Democrats within the chamber vote unanimously. However, these senators have faced some opposition to the bill.
Most famously, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has stated that he will “not support the bill in its current state” to reporters. His main concern revolves around the law’s effect on religious liberty as well as the risk that the law potentially legalizes polygamous marriages. This sentiment is widespread among many Republicans who have remained reluctant to express their support.
This opposition has inspired Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc), one member among the bipartisan group of advocates, to propose drafts of the bill that clarified language making religious liberty more explicitly protected as a compromise. However, these proposed changes haven’t been as fruitful as previously hoped. On the same day that Baldwin’s terms were offered, it was announced that the vote was delayed until after the November midterm elections.
One reason to be found for uncertainty can be found in the looming election season. Countless senators of both parties would have to contend with voters in the midterms in the coming weeks after the original vote time.
As of June this year, up to 71% of Americans support the right to same-sex marriage, according to a recent Gallup poll. In that poll, the only opposition to same-sex marriage remains in the religious population. When polled, weekly church-goers were shown to oppose same-sex marriage by 58%. If a senator representing a conservative constituency voted on “ROMA” before the midterms, they have two options. If they vote in favor of it, they risk alienating their religious supporters. If they vote against it, they risk angering the wider public.
Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who represents a state with a large Mormon population, reflects on this dilemma. “I presume that’s the reason for the delay,” he stated.
One of the bill’s supporters, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), makes similar remarks. “My personal preference is to put everyone on the record before the November elections,” he told reporters. “But I understand the decisions that are made about when the prospects are best for passing the measure.”
In light of these setbacks, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office released a statement commenting that he is “extremely disappointed that there aren’t 10 Republicans in the Senate willing to vote yes on marriage equality legislation at this time.” In spite of the shortcomings, Schumer has continued to state that he is “100 percent committed to holding a vote on the legislation this year.”
Nevertheless, there is some hope for those wishing to see ROMA passed. For one, the bill’s supporters have more room to negotiate and converse with those still unsure about passing it in the longer time gained before the midterm elections. Once the midterms pass, senators are also allowed to ease their electoral anxieties for the near future, regardless of the outcome. They can vote with certainty if they win their elections and keep their posts. If they lose, they can still vote comfortably in their “lame duck” period between then and the end of their terms in January. For many, the end of the election cycle is all that is needed to calm their senses.
As election day rears its head, voters can add the possibility of ROMA‘s passage to their list of expectations and concerns as they head to the polls. Whether people support it or oppose it, ROMA will give potential voters another reason for them to cast their ballot in November.