House to act on domestic partnership

Legislation that would provide benefits to domestic partners of federal employees will soon be marked up by a House committee and could hit the floor by the end of 2009.

Under current law, same-sex couples working at the federal level are ineligible to receive the same healthcare, retirement and family leave benefits afforded to their married counterparts. Many companies in the private sector have long offered their employees those domestic partner benefits.

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Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s (D-Wis.) bill has been approved along party lines at the subcommittee level and will be the subject of a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the week after Veterans Day. The committee is expected to mark the bill up shortly thereafter.

Jurisdiction over the bill also falls to other panels, but Baldwin believes that once committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) moves the measure, the other committees will waive jurisdiction.

The extension of benefits to federal employees in domestic partnerships is a touchy subject for some lawmakers in Congress who are opponents of same-sex marriage.

Baldwin’s bill has 126 co-sponsors, all Democrats. That leaves Baldwin 92 votes short of the number necessary for passage on the floor.

However, in an interview with The Hill, Baldwin said she “absolutely” believes that the bill will have the 218 votes necessary to pass the House.

“We are doing [an] informal whip count and we have found that people are very supportive of this bill,” said Baldwin, one of the few openly gay members of Congress. “There has been a good response and people seem to understand the necessity of this bill.”

Asked if she thought conservative Democrats, such as the Blue Dogs, would pose a problem, Baldwin responded, “No.
“We have talked to many Blue Dogs and they are examining the bill on its merits,” she said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also supports the bill and has worked behind the scenes to get the bill moving.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has been lobbying congressional leaders on the measure.

“I just got done talking with the Speaker about this,” Frank recently told The Hill. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are onboard with the bill, he said.

Reid’s office did not comment for this article.

Frank, who is gay, said President Barack Obama is the main reason why the Baldwin measure will pass: “He deserves the credit. He has kept this issue alive.”

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Obama ran on a platform of ending discriminatory practices that affect the gay community, including repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and extending federal benefits to same-sex couples.

In June, the president took the first step toward extending benefits to same-sex couples. The move, however, was limited, and extended only certain benefits to some federal employees.

The president pointed out that his hands were bound on the issue, citing his limited statutory authority.

While some were critical of the president for not going further, Frank staunchly defended the president’s move: “Tammy and I have been trying to explain that he did what he could.”

The Baldwin bill will give the president the authority he needs to extend those benefits to other federal employees, Frank said.

Obama has noted the government’s position is at odds with the private sector and may cost the government some of the “best and brightest employees.”

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The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), one of the nation’s largest gay advocacy organizations, is lobbying for the Baldwin legislation.

“HRC strongly supports the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act — it is simply a matter of equal pay for equal work,” said Trevor R. Thomas, deputy communications director for HRC.

 In the Senate, a companion bill has been introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member on the committee, supports Lieberman’s bill. She is the only GOP supporter of the bill, which has 24 co-sponsors.

Like his House counterparts, Lieberman said he would like to bring the bill to the floor before the end of the year.

“We have a whole new administration with a different attitude toward this, so I think I’d like to give people an opportunity to testify,” Lieberman told The Hill last month. “And then I’d like to bring the bill out sometime before the end of the year.”

Lieberman said he sees the bill as a pragmatic approach to federal hiring practices — not as a civil rights issue.

“I’m sure it will be controversial,” he said. “To me this is not a question of fairness. Our committee oversees the civil service, and to me this is a way to broaden the pool of people that we can recruit to work for the federal government. This is why Fortune 500 companies give benefits to domestic partners, because it both attracts and keeps the best employees.”