WASHINGTON — Public opinion on same-sex marriage in the United States has been shifting for years. Now lawmakers are hurrying to catch up.
In less than two weeks, seven senators — all from moderate or Republican-leaning states — announced their support for gay marriage. Their proclamations reflect a profound political change: For the first time, elected officials from traditionally conservative states are starting to feel it’s safer to back gay marriage than risk being the last to join the cause.
“As far as I can tell, political leaders are falling all over themselves to endorse your side of the case,” Chief Justice John Roberts told lawyers urging the Supreme Court on Wednesday to strike down a law barring legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits that other married couples receive.
The country’s top court heard two landmark gay marriage cases this week, its first major examination of gay rights in a decade. The focus on the cases obscured the sudden emergence of support among lawmakers across the street in the Capitol.
Among Republicans, whose party platform opposes gay marriage, the shift in position mostly has been limited to former lawmakers and prominent strategists. Still, a change in tone was palpable this month when Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican with a gay son, declared his support.
Rather than criticize Portman, Republican leaders shrugged. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, cautioned in a USA Today interview that the party should not “act like Old Testament heretics.”
“They’re reflecting what they’re seeing in the polls — except the most extreme of the Republican base,” former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who supports gay marriage, said in an interview. “From a purely political perspective, if you want to be a leader of the future, you look at the next generation. They are overwhelmingly in favor of this.”
On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama came out in support of gay marriage last year. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential contender in 2016, announced her support this month. As support among party leaders builds, Democrats appear wary of being perceived as hold-outs in what both parties are increasingly describing as a civil-rights issue.
In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Republican leaders are not wavering publicly from their staunch opposition. In fact, when the Obama administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being only between a man and woman, it was House Republicans who defended it in this week’s Supreme Court debate.
But other Republicans are shifting support.
“The party realizes they are on the losing side of some of these issues,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican who came out as gay in 1996 while in office. He will mark another milestone in May, when he and his longtime partner get married in Washington, where gay marriage is legal.
Kolbe and Whitman joined dozens of other prominent Republicans in signing a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down the law barring federal recognition of gay marriages.
But with House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, still defending the law and social conservative groups vowing payback for those who abandon it, prospects are slim that Congress will move any time soon to repeal it on its own.
When Gallup first asked in polls about gay marriages, in 1996, just 27 percent felt they should be valid. That figure climbed to 44 percent two years ago, and reached a majority by last November, when 53 percent said gay marriages should be recognized.
Even among Republicans, support has grown by 14 percentage points since 1996, although there’s been no significant movement among Republicans since 2010, when 28 percent backed legal marriage.
“A lot of Republicans have come to the conclusion we can’t live one life in private but advocate another life in public,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “We all know families who are loving parents of the same gender who are raising great kids.”
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