Repeal of DOMA gets new attention in wake of Obama's support of gay marriage

Legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is garnering new attention from lawmakers in the wake of President Obama's support of same-sex marriage.

The Respect for Marriage Act would repeal DOMA and afford federal protections to legally married same-sex married couples, like those in New York state and elsewhere, that male and female couples already enjoy. Since Obama's statement Wednesday, the bill has picked up new co-sponsors and Democratic leaders, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), have said they would support legalizing same-sex marriage.

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That has given new hope to activists lobbying for the bill, such as Jo Deutsch, federal director for Freedom to Marry. Deutsch told The Hill that White House support of same-sex marriage can guide lawmakers through the same evolution on the issue that the president just completed.

“It shows a man going from point one — from his own questioning, to talking to family and friends, thinking about his own religious upbringing, from seeing people who are impacted by DOMA — and come to end of that journey and say he is for the freedom to marry,” Deutsch said. “That piece acts as an umbrella over all of what is going on on Capitol Hill. ... Because if President Obama can do it and say he is for the freedom to marry, maybe I can do it too."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who introduced the Respect for Marriage Act in the House, said Obama’s statement has helped move the bill. Nadler noted that when he first offered a repeal of DOMA in 2009, he couldn’t find a Senate partner for the legislation.

“It certainly puts the bill in a better light. It changes the background and it has an impact in moving the bill forward,” Nadler said. “The bill is developing more and more momentum.”

New co-sponsors — such as Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) — have signed onto the Respect for Marriage Act since the president’s statement, according to congressional records.

The House version of the bill now has 144 co-sponsors while the Senate version has 32. There is only one GOP supporter so far — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Advocates admit that it’s not probable the bill will pass Congress this year with Republicans in control of the House. Yet the wall-to-wall media coverage since Obama’s statement has begun to force once-silent Democrats to step up and share their position on same-sex marriage, which could swell the ranks of same-sex marriage supporters and lock down votes for the bill in a future Congress.

Gay rights groups are pushing for members of Congress to go on the record about same-sex marriage — the Human Rights Campaign launched such a campaign on Thursday.

“In this Congress, it's highly unlikely that the bill will see the light of day in the House. They are actually trying to make DOMA stronger,” said Fred Sainz, the HRC's vice president for communications. “Getting them on the record on where they stand on marriage is just as important as the fate of any one piece of legislation.”

Lawmakers’ statements of support for same-sex marriage will be included in the HRC’s congressional scorecard, along with key votes and bill sponsorships.

In June last year, Freedom to Marry hired Holland & Knight with firm partner Kathryn Lehman, a former House GOP leadership aide, to take the reins on lobbying Republicans. Consulting firm DCI Group has also been hired to help the group in its effort to repeal DOMA.

In February, Freedom to Marry launched a coalition in support of same-sex marriage that has grown close to 70 groups, according to their estimate. They also plan to launch a new website in the coming weeks that will be a tool for coalition members and others to lobby for the repeal of DOMA.

There have been lobbying successes before Obama’s statement this week, with the Senate Judiciary Committee approving the Respect for Marriage Act and the White House saying they supported the bill last year.

“It's definitely helpful to have the president in support when you are lobbying on an issue,” Lehman said. “I think it helps in a very big picture way in that it’s historic with the president coming out with the support of it. It will force people to consider it more seriously.”

The GOP lobbyist, however, said the president’s support wouldn’t change her lobbying that much.

Lehman said she is more likely to remind Republican lawmakers’ offices that former Vice President Dick Cheney supports same-sex marriage. Further, she plans to continue to make a states’ rights argument for the repeal of DOMA, since the law denies federal protections to same-sex marriages legalized at the state level.

The president’s support of same-sex marriage could also energize the opposition to the issue. On Wednesday, House Republicans added several amendments to appropriations bills on the floor and in committee that took aim at same-sex marriage.

Social conservative groups have decried the White House support of same-sex marriage and said it could cost Obama at the polls come November. In a statement Wednesday, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said same-sex marriage is now an issue for the presidential race.

“The president has provided a clear contrast between him and his challenger Mitt Romney. Romney, who has signed a pledge to support a marriage protection amendment to the U.S. Constitution, may have been handed the key to social conservative support by President Obama,” Perkins said.

Several states will likely have same-sex marriage on the ballot this year, including Maine, Maryland and Washington. Gay rights groups, still smarting from North Carolina voting to ban same-sex marriage on Tuesday, know the electoral terrain will be tough this election year.

But several same-sex marriage supporters said polling has swung in their favor and that repealing DOMA is only helped by Obama’s statement.

“The evolution of the president opens the door to different possibilities, for people talking about this who were not willing to talk about this before, and that's radically different,” Deutsch said.

Nadler said turning back DOMA seems less daunting after Obama’s statement in support of same-sex marriage.

“In the face of the rapid shift towards support for gay marriage generally, the president’s statement enhancing that even more so, it makes DOMA and the repeal of DOMA seem like a smaller, a more obvious thing to do because it’s not saying recognize gay marriage. It’s saying let the states do what they want,” Nadler said.