WASHINGTON — A U.S. Senate committee on Thursday voted to advance the Respect for Marriage Act, an historic bill that would fully repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 — along party lines — in favor of the bill, yet it faces significant hurdles in the 100-seat Senate, where only about 30 Senators have voiced support for the repeal. In the GOP-led U.S. House, opposition is expected to be even greater.
“This morning, the judiciary committee took a historic step towards righting an injustice that goes right to the core of what we stand for this nation: freedom and equality,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s chair.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged after the hearing that she didn’t have the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster on the Senate floor, but called Thursday’s vote a “big first step.”
In a statement to the Judiciary Committee just before Thursday’s vote, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that DOMA, like other discriminatory barriers before it, would inevitably fall. The question was not whether DOMA would be repealed, but when, he said.
“One day, we will debate full marriage equality and that will pass,” Schumer said.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, prevents any of the over 1,100 federal rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage from being afforded to legally married same-sex couples, including Social Security survivors benefits, federal employee health benefits for spouses, the right to sponsor a foreign born spouse for immigration, the guarantee of family and medical leave and the ability to file joint tax returns, among many others.
According to a March 2011 poll by the Human Rights Campaign and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 51 percent of voters oppose DOMAm while only 34 percent favor it.
In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in two of the four cases where that section of the law is currently under challenge.
Section 3 — the part of DOMA that defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of a man and a woman — was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in July 2010.
In March, a bipartisan House committee, led by GOP leaders, directed the House general counsel to defend the law.