POLITICS
02/26/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2014

Jeanne Shaheen To Introduce Measure To Give Equal Veterans Benefits To Gay Married Couples

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) is set to introduce an amendment Wednesday to sweeping veterans benefits legislation that would extend federal benefits to legally married gay couples.

The amendment, known as the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, would help bring the Department of Veterans Affairs' policies in line with the June Supreme Court decision that struck down the heart of the Defense of Marriage Act. The department currently extends benefits to gay couples based on the laws of the state where the military member is currently stationed, not based on those where the marriage took place.

For example, if a couple married in Vermont and then moved to North Dakota, the veteran could lose his or her spousal benefits. The department denied a home loan to a Texas couple who married in Washington state because it did not recognize the income of the non-veteran spouse in the application. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has said that if Congress changes the spousal benefits definition, the department would change its policy.

"No one who has served openly in our military and fought for our country should be denied benefits that they've rightfully earned," Shaheen said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "The Charlie Morgan Act makes sure that we fulfill the commitment we have made to all of our veterans and military families so that finally no spouse, child or family can be denied the care and benefits they deserve."

The measure is named after the late Charlie Morgan, the veteran who fought to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, as it barred her wife from receiving benefits to help care for their daughter. Morgan was a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit in 2011 saying the act violated her constitutional rights. She died of breast cancer last year.

Shaheen has continued to advocate for the Charlie Morgan Act since it cleared the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in July. The amendment to the veterans bill is currently co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

The Senate is currently debating the veterans benefits bill, which could come up for a vote as early as next Tuesday. A Democratic leadership aide said a process for amendments has yet to be determined.

A similar measure has been pushed in the House by Democratic Reps. Dina Titus (Nev.), the ranking member on the VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Adam Smith (Wash.), ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. The legislation was announced last June but has gained little traction in the Republican-controlled lower chamber.

Gay rights advocates were quick to commend Shaheen for the measure.

"Service members who have protected our country and our freedom should not have to worry that their families will go unprotected and their freedom to marry disrespected by the federal government depending on what state they and their loved ones find themselves in," said Evan Wolfson, founder and President of Freedom to Marry. "The Senate should swiftly make this common-sense and overdue correction to assure that all married veterans receive the federal support and respect they deserve, one more necessary step toward fully assuring federal respect for marriage nationwide."

"We commend Senator Shaheen for her leadership on this critical issue and we encourage Senators to support this amendment," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director at the Human Rights Campaign. "While we have made great progress in extending the full range of federal benefits to married lesbian and gay couples, there is still uncertainty regarding the equal recognition of all the families of the brave men and women who have served our nation in uniform."

This article has been updated with additional co-sponsors of the amendment, and information about the House bill.

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