By Sam Youngman - 06/17/09 07:17 PM EDT
Activists claim the president has not done enough for the gay community and are furious about last week’s brief from the Justice Department that defended the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
“These are just some of the wrongs that we intend to right today,” Obama said.
Obama thanked Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) for their efforts on new legislation that would allow him to extend full benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
Gay activists call it a good “first step,” but repealing DOMA and doing away with “Don’t ask, don’t tell” remain their leading priorities.
Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic strategist and lobbyist, said the gay community will be “reasonably patient” if Obama “articulates his agenda and shows some leadership” — particularly those activists who sense that any legislative attempts to repeal DOMA and alter “Don’t ask, don’t tell” would probably fail.
The White House’s biggest error, Elmendorf said, is not apologizing for some of the language, or “self-inflicted wounds,” that was contained in the DoJ brief, which drew analogies between gay marriage and incestuous or underage marriage.
“They’ll argue they had to do it, and maybe they did,” Elmendorf said of the administration. “But they certainly didn’t have to it in the language that was done, and people are right to be upset.”
In the wake of the brief’s release, a number of gay Democrats said publicly that they would skip a Democratic National Committee (DNC) fundraiser later this month that is expected to feature Vice President Biden.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that DoJ is charged with “the role of upholding the law of the land, while the president has stated and will work with Congress to change that law.”
Obama remains committed to both the repeal of DOMA and “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Gibbs said, and he thinks that both can be done in this Congress. Many activists, however, have accused the White House of dragging its feet in sending legislation to Capitol Hill on the politically perilous issues.
Gibbs said he understands the frustration of the gay community, saying that “obviously, they’ve waited a long time for policies that are either not in our national interest or hurtful to be changed.” He noted that the president and his administration have a full plate of issues they are working on, but changing those laws is “a priority of the president to get done.”
Elmendorf said the gay community has no interest in sending bills to Capitol Hill that can’t be passed.
John Berry, Obama’s director of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking gay member of the administration, told reporters Wednesday that “anybody in Washington who tells you there’s a timeline is kidding you.”
“Whenever you get 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, that’s the timeline,” Berry said. “That’s the rules of the road. The timeline needs to be pushed by when we have the votes to guarantee the bill’s passage.”
Berry, whose office, along with the State Department, wrote the review that resulted in Wednesday’s announcement, disputed questions about the expansion of benefits, specifically about complaints that the president’s actions don’t actually change anything.
One of the new benefits would require supervisors to allow for medical leave to spend time caring for a same-sex partner, something that was already occurring.
But Berry said those occurrences were “subject to the whim of a supervisor.”
“If you had an enlightened supervisor, then yes, that was a possibility,” Berry said.
The memorandum will add domestic partners of civil service employees to long-term healthcare insurance and require supervisors to allow those employees to use sick leave to take care of their partners and children who are “non-biological, non-adopted,” according to a White House fact sheet.
The benefits do not apply to members of the military, which means military personnel remain subject to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” However, civilian employees at the Pentagon will be eligible for the expanded benefits.
The benefits also apply to Foreign Service personnel. Their same-sex partners will be allowed to use medical facilities at posts abroad, be eligible for medical evacuation and be included for family-size housing.
A White House aide said the administration does not expect that the memorandum will require additional appropriations.
While the gay community still wants a great deal more from Obama, religious conservatives blasted the president’s moves.
“President Obama’s planned [memorandum] uses taxpayer money to placate an angry portion of his base at the expense of the rule of law,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Ironically, Mr. Obama has pursued an aggressive pro-homosexual agenda — but his actions to date are, apparently, insufficient for the radical homosexuals pushing their extreme demands.”
Perkins said his group will “review the order and confer with our legal counsel to determine an appropriate response.”