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James C. Hormel

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DOMA Repeal Ratchets Up the Pressure

Posted: 11/16/11 02:33 PM ET

With the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Nov. 10 vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act, centrist Senators will be scrambling for cover once again.

Fearful of the 2012 election guillotine, neither moderate Republicans nor conservative Democrats want to see the bill, which would repeal the heinous Defense of Marriage Act and clear the way for states to enact same-sex marriage, anywhere near the Senate floor.

We know how the base in each party would vote, but what about the conflicted middle? What would Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine do? And Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota or Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- how will they vote?

For the time being, these senators probably won't lose much sleep over the issue. I daresay Republican Senator John Cornyn was right when he told reporters that Reid risked "a revolution in his own caucus" if he brought the bill up before elections. That's too bad.

A vote by the full Senate would force legislators to cease their dodging and ducking on same-sex marriage and let their constituents know whether they continue to abide by DOMA, a patently unconstitutional and discriminatory law.

I do not mean to gloss over the landmark importance of the judiciary committee decision, but this pattern of legislative avoidance is all too familiar to me. More than a decade ago, when I was President Clinton's nominee as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, the first openly gay man to be considered for such a position, I, too, was stymied by a voting allergy in the Senate.

The critical difference in my situation was that Senate Democrats and even a handful of Republicans, including Senators Gordon Smith, Orrin Hatch, John McCain and Alfonse D'Amato, supported me, as did a vocal and diverse cross-section of the American public, including President Reagan's Secretary of State, George Schultz, and Don Fisher, a major Republican donor and CEO of The Gap.

My former wife Alice Turner featured among the hundreds who wrote to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, asking for a vote on my nomination. Despite this, Lott and a trio of far-right senators blocked my nomination and provided an out for dozens of others in their party who did not want to take a public position.

Their reluctance gave me courage to fight, even when desperate Christian extremists went so far as to allege that I supported pedophilia. After two years of political rancor, President Clinton gave me a recess appointment in June 1999, making me the highest openly gay U.S. government official at that time.

I did not succeed in getting all 100 U.S. Senators on the record, but I did break the pink ceiling, and two openly gay ambassadors have served since.

What today's senators need to know is that voting to ensure that all Americans enjoy the same rights does not require so much courage -- the American people are already ahead of them on these issues. Recent elections made that clear.

On Nov. 8, Mississippi voters protected a woman's right to choose, Ohio residents affirmed union rights, and Maine citizens rejected an attempt to make voting more difficult.

Yet the clearest defense of civil rights in these elections came from Iowa voters, who disregarded the vicious messaging of marriage foes and elected Democrat Liz Mathis to the State Senate, ensuring a majority of Democrats to protect the state's right to same-sex marriage.

Voters are increasingly choosing candidates based on qualifications, not sexual orientation. The off-year elections delivered wins to dozens of gay and lesbian candidates in cities as politically diverse as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver and Charlotte.

Openly gay Houston Mayor Annise Parker won easy reelection, and tiny Chatham Township, in the heart of "red" New Jersey, elected Bruce Harris, an openly gay, African-American Republican as their mayor.

When will Washington see that the tide has turned? People want congressional leaders to focus on creating jobs, ending the wars and reducing the federal deficit. They don't want their government to spend energy or money denying their neighbors basic Constitutional rights.

As Senators Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy and other key supporters rally support for the Respect for Marriage Act, let their first lobbying target be Senator Reid. They must implore him: let the Senate vote.