By Mike Lillis - 05/09/12 12:20 AM EDT
The pressure on President Obama to support gay marriage increased this week, as the head of the Democratic Caucus said an overwhelming majority of House Democrats support Vice President Biden’s view that same-gender couples should have the legal right to wed.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said Tuesday that there are “mixed views” on the gay-marriage issue among House Democrats, “but a vast majority of our caucus is where Biden is.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), another gay-marriage supporter, said Obama’s record on gay rights puts him leagues ahead of Mitt Romney — the presumptive GOP presidential nominee — in the eyes of gay voters this election year. But the Illinois Democrat was hardly shy about voicing his hope that Obama will adopt Biden’s position.
The issue has been a thorn in the side of Obama, who’s taken long strides to advance the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community since taking office — though he also has frustrated that community by opposing gay marriage. Obama has said his views on the issue are “evolving.”
Biden made waves Sunday when he broke with Obama to endorse the legal right of gay couples to marry. Appearing Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Biden declared he is “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
A day later, Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Biden in endorsing gay marriage.
Underlining the prickly nature of the issue in a competitive election year, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) — the normally loquacious Democratic whip — became uncharacteristically terse Tuesday when asked about Obama’s position on gay marriage.
“Vice President Biden was pretty clear on that, and I haven’t heard anybody from the White House or anyplace else reject Sen. Biden’s view,” Hoyer said during his weekly press conference in the Capitol. “My own view is that we ought to treat everybody fairly and equally.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), another strong proponent of gay marriage, has also approached the issue delicately this year. In February, Pelosi endorsed a push to have the national Democratic Party adopt gay-marriage rights as an official plank of the 2012 campaign. But she was quick to emphasize the endorsement was hers alone.
“I was talking about myself, not the entire Democratic Party, or speaking for the president,” she said at the time.
The Obama camp was quick to downplay the significance of Biden’s comments, saying they were merely the opinion of a vice president speaking off the cuff, not an indication of a White House policy change.
David Axelrod, Obama’s former top adviser, said Biden’s comments are “entirely consistent with the president’s position, which is that couples who are married, whether they’re gay or heterosexual couples, are entitled to the very same rights and the very same liberties.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a gay-marriage supporter, agreed.
“I don’t think there’s an inconsistency there that is gonna hurt the president,” Grijalva said Tuesday.
Still, Biden’s comments lent gay-marriage advocates a dose of fuel to pressure Obama on the issue.
“It should make it harder for Mr. Obama to cling to the tired evasion that his views on marriage are ‘evolving,’ ” the New York Times editorialists wrote Tuesday.
Some Democrats this week said the focus on the divide between Obama and Biden distracts from the real issue: the differing views of Obama and Romney on gay rights. They note that, just last week, a gay spokesman quit the Romney campaign after being sidelined for fear of attracting attention to his sexual orientation.
“You’ve got Mitt Romney, who has to fire some second-level communications guy because he’s gay,” Gutierrez said, “and at the other end you’ve got President Obama who has his secretary of Education … and his vice president very freely and eloquently expressing why we should change the policy.
“Sorry, I can’t see how that hurts [Obama].”
Romney, who ran against former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994 with a promise “to establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens,” has angered the gay community with his more recent hard-line positions on the issue. On the campaign trail last year, for instance, he signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge to fight to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
Hoping to make political hay of Romney’s changing position on gay rights, the Obama campaign issued a statement Tuesday accusing the former Massachusetts governor of regressing on the issue.
“The country has moved forward since 1994, when Gov. Romney was supposedly an advocate on these issues, yet Gov. Romney has moved backwards,” spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
A number of Democrats said they’re taking Obama’s words at face value when the president says he’s still ruminating over the issue.
“When you come from a religious background where you’ve been taught all your life that marriage is between a man and a woman, and then you find yourself looking at how a society is changing — and then try to change your thinking that has been with you [all your life] — I can understand him saying it’s evolving,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
But Gutierrez, for one, suggested Biden’s remarks are an indication that the president might be getting closer to backing gay marriage.
“I find it difficult to believe,” Gutierrez said, “that Biden and the president just haven’t had a conversation about this.”