Do Democrats really think delaying a vote on the Respect for Marriage Act can save it?

Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaking alongside other Senators at a press conference in 2019.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaking alongside other Senators at a press conference about climate in 2019. Photo: Senate Democrats

Give Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) credit. She had a tough choice to make when it comes to the Respect for Marriage Act.

The bill, which would make protect same-sex marriage from a renegade Supreme Court already eyeing it, needs ten Republicans to clear the Senate’s arcane filibuster rules. So far only three have signed on: Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH, retiring this year), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)

With no immediate prospects in sight, Baldwin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) decided last week to kick the measure down the road to after the midterm elections.

“We’re very confident that the bill will pass but we will need a little more time,” said Baldwin, the bill’s lead sponsor and the only out lesbian in the Senate.

Baldwin and Schumer were essentially left with two choices: hope for the best later or jam a vote now, knowing full well that it would fail. They chose to gamble on the side of possible success later, passing up certain political fodder now. That’s a noble decision, although one that doesn’t seem all that much more likely to pay off later this year than it would now.

The reasoning is that there are a bunch of Republican senators who, in their heart of hearts, really do support marriage equality, assuming all the proper protections for “religious liberty” are baked into the bill. It’s just that they can ill afford to rile up the base so close to election time. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who is in a tough re-election fight, is the poster boy for this argument. Johnson originally said he was okay with the bill, until suddenly he wasn’t.

Certainly, some senators have hinted broadly that they would happily vote for the bill, just later. “If I wanted to pass that and I was the majority leader and I wanted to get as many votes as I could possibly get, I’d wait until after the election to have the vote,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said, just prior to the bill being delayed.  (Blunt is retiring this year, so hopefully he will find his spine after November 8.)

The idea that Democrats somehow have to remove politics from the debate about marriage equality is laughable, of course. For years, Republicans found it a handy cudgel to beat Democrats with. George W. Bush made anti-marriage measures a critical component of his 2004 re-election campaign. Now that the tide of public opinion has turned against the GOP on the issue, Republicans are frightened at the prospect that they might be held accountable for their ongoing opposition to it. If they can duck that electoral blowback, they might reveal their real belief – which is like the majority of Americans.

That’s the risk that Democrats are taking by pushing the bill past the November elections. Baldwin clearly believes that she has ten Republicans lined up for the measure, which passed the House with a surprising 47 Republicans in support. The real question is whether she can trust the Republicans to deliver on their presumed promises and publicly reveal, at least temporarily, what many of them only say privately about LGBTQ rights.

Perhaps that’s the biggest gamble of all. But Baldwin is playing the hand she’s been dealt. Her focus is on getting the measure into law to protect marriage rights. That wasn’t going to happen before the election. If Republicans win the House, the bill could struggle in the next session of Congress. It comes down to hoping for the best in the lame duck session. Let’s hope that the gamble pays off.

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