Gay lobby’s next target: Benefits in all 50 states

Gay rights lobbyists plan to use their victory at the Supreme Court to push legislation that would ensure married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits in all 50 states.

Activists triumphed at the Supreme Court on Wednesday when the majority ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a Clinton-era law that had prevented gay couples from receiving federal benefits, is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

But the groups said their victory was incomplete because it’s not clear from the court ruling if married gay couples would lose their benefits if they move to one of the 37 states where gay marriage is illegal.

That means another major lobbying battle is at hand for groups on both sides of the marriage debate.

“What the Supreme Court basically did this morning was put a stake in the heart of DOMA, but it didn’t kill DOMA yet,” said Jo Deutsch, the federal director for Freedom to Marry.

Conservative and religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage said they would seek to make the issue moot by passing an amendment to the Constitution that would ban gay marriage nationwide.  

“A narrow radical majority of the court has, in my opinion, substituted their personal views for the constitutional decisions of the American voters and their elected representatives,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said Wednesday when announcing the amendment push.

Ralph Reed, chairman and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, slammed the court’s ruling “as stunning display of judicial activism” and called for “passage of federal legislation to remedy this situation as much as possible, given the parameters of the decision.”

“Social Security, income tax, family and medical leave law, Medicare, and other federal programs have always defined marriage as between a man and a woman — and this was true before DOMA became law. For the Supreme Court to rule otherwise is Kafkaesque, undermines marriage and weakens the family,” Reed said.

But passing a constitutional amendment would be a heavy lift, given the shift in public opinion toward support for gay marriage.

That means lobbyists for gay and civil rights groups can go on offense, which they plan to do with a campaign for the Respect for Marriage Act.

The bill would fully repeal DOMA and ensure that “state of ceremony” takes precedence over “state of residence” when the government decides whether a gay couple is eligible for tax breaks, entitlement benefits and other federal programs.

“It takes DOMA off the books, which we want,” Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for Human Rights Campaign, said of the Respect for Marriage Act.

Sainz said the bill has a “certainty provision” that specifies all legally married gay couples “will be able to get all federal rights and benefits associated with marriage that are provided by the federal government.”

Democrats quickly championed the bill on Wednesday, with members of both the House and Senate swiftly reintroducing the Respect for Marriage Act in Congress.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told The Hill that lawmakers were waiting until after the court decision to offer the legislation.

“You should not have a unconstitutional law hanging around the statute books,” Nadler said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said she would introduce the bill that day with 39 co-sponsors in the Senate. That exceeds the bill’s number of co-sponsors last Congress, when it had 32. 

But it’s unclear whether there will be much Republican support for the Respect for Marriage Act now that the court has struck down DOMA.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday said he was “disappointed” in the court’s ruling and signaled the House will seek to protect the rights of states to decide whether to allow same-sex marriage.

“A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman,” Boehner said in a statement.

Beyond legislation, the high court’s decision will require the Obama administration to revamp a slew of federal regulations to comply, and lobbyists said they would closely follow those decisions.

“We hope the administration will move as quickly as possible to ensure that married same-sex couples across the country receive the respect and recognition they deserve,” said Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Activists said they would push the administration to be as expansive as possible with the language in the new rules.

“We are going to be advocating before the administration in order to provide the greatest number of benefits to the greatest number of couples nationwide,” Sainz said.

At least one major lobbying battle seems to have actually been defused by the court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court decision should now allow homosexual U.S. citizens to sponsor their foreign partners for green cards to come to the United States, avoiding a potential fight over the Senate immigration reform bill.

Activists had been pushing Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to offer an amendment to the bill that would afford equal treatment to same-sex couples in the immigration process. Now that measure is no longer needed, and Leahy said Wednesday that he would not seek a floor vote for the amendment.  

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, said the high court ruling would make people eligible for the “green card they need to keep their families together.”

“Couples forced into exile will be coming home soon. Americans separated from their spouses are now able to prepare for their reunion. Today’s ruling is literally a life-changing one for those who have suffered under DOMA and our discriminatory immigration laws,” Tiven said in a statement.

Russell Berman and Mike Lillis contributed to this report