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Breaking Down the DOMA Repeal Vote: What It Means and Where We Go

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Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 8 to pass the "Respect for Marriage Act" (RFA). This legislation, introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would repeal the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The vote was down strict party lines, with the 10 Democrats voting for repeal of DOMA and the 8 Republicans voting to keep the discriminatory law.

But what does this vote mean, and where do we go from here?

Where the Bill Goes from Here

To be clear, this was a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. From here, the bill would, in theory, go to the full Senate for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could add it to the agenda for debate, a move that would need to be agreed to by unanimous consent or pass on a motion to proceed. The problem comes from the fact that a motion to proceed is subject to a filibuster, which Republicans in the Senate have been using at historic levels to force a supermajority of 60 votes to move forward. Republicans on the committee said that they did not expect the Senate to take up the bill at all, so the prospect of a filibuster if it was brought up is a certainty. The other option is for an individual senator to bring the bill up as an amendment to other legislation, although it is unclear if that will happen, as well. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) spoke to the powerful statement that would be made by the vote alone, even if it failed this time: "If this is brought to the floor, and only the 30 co-sponsors vote for it, it is worth it."

Even if the RFA did pass the Senate, where the vote count and the procedural path to pass it is highly questionable, the House of Representatives becomes an even bigger obstacle. The Republican-controlled House is extremely hostile to DOMA repeal, to put it mildly. House Republicans have announced that they're tripling the taxpayer dollars they'll spend to defend DOMA in court against current challenges. Led by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House GOP would certainly make sure the repeal bill never even saw the light of legislative day. There is positive movement on DOMA in the House, however, where 130 Democrats filed a brief arguing that the discriminatory DOMA law is unconstitutional.

If the RFA did pass all those hurdles, President Obama has said he supports ending DOMA and would sign the bill. President Obama's spokesman, Shin Inouye, issued the following statement after the Senate vote:

President Obama applauds today's vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve the Respect for Marriage Act, which would provide a legislative repeal of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act." The President has long believed that DOMA is discriminatory and has called for its repeal. We should all work towards taking this law off the books. The federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections afforded to straight couples.

The best chance in the immediate future for DOMA repeal is through the court system. Matt Baume from the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization that has been leading the fight in the courts against California's Proposition 8, has a great video explaining why the Senate Judiciary vote is important and looks at DOMA's future in the courts:

The actual legislative road forward may be difficult in the immediate future, but there is reason to celebrate the vote and what it means for the shifting political landscape of full marriage equality.

Why the DOMA Repeal Vote Matters: Looking at the Landscape

So with all the roadblocks and uncertainty around the actual passage of the RFA, especially in this congressional session, why does this Senate Judiciary vote matter at all?

First, the vote itself is historic. It is the first congressional vote in support of ending the Defense of Marriage Act. That in and of itself is progress. Yet beyond that, the hearing shed light on the stark differences in the political parties when it comes to equality. Besides just the party line vote, the language used by the Senators on each side spoke volumes.

Republicans trotted out long-disproved and outdated reasons to be against repeal of DOMA. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) used tired old lines about the long history of marriage as a "heterosexual institution," overlooking the long, twisting history of arranged marriages, women as property, polygamy, etc. Grassley also oddly tried to play the race card by citing what he perceived to be a division between the African-American community and those wanting marriage equality, an odd move from a conservative white man who has never been too concerned with minority civil rights issues before. Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.) made a nonsensical argument about the higher costs of providing federal benefits to same-sex couples, despite the fact that those couples pay into benefits like social security just like every other person or couple.

Every one of the GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee made long-disproven arguments about the safety of children, saving "traditional" families, and other talking points that are out of step with reality. It only served to show that their opposition is based in small-mindedness and personal bias, stances that a majority of Americans oppose and that are sure to make many more uncomfortable with opposition to equality for LGBT people.

The Democrats on the committee, on the other hand, put some powerful statements for equality into congressional record and the public discourse. Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that because of DOMA, "thousands of American families are now being treated unfairly by their federal government." The RFA's sponsor, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said DOMA "is discriminatory and should be stricken." She also pointed out the legal brief filed by over 70 major businesses and organizations (like Microsoft, Starbucks, Google, Nike, Levi Strauss, and many others) stating their opposition to the anti-gay law because it puts a major burden on businesses and employees. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) brilliantly called out Senator Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) claims that marriage has "always been between a man and a woman" with a quick history lesson:

Perhaps the most powerful moment from the hearings showed how long-term political outreach can change hearts and minds. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is now a strong champion for marriage equality, had this to say about how he has evolved on DOMA: "I want to be clear, I voted for DOMA. I was wrong." He also said, "I don't want to be on the wrong side of history on this issue."

Seeing a legislator admit that they were flat-out wrong is something rarely seen in politics. It's a powerful statement on shifting societal views.

Shedding light on the shifting views on same-sex relationships and marriage equality may, in fact, be the most important thing to come out of the Senate Judiciary vote. While the future of the bill itself in the immediate political future looks pretty bleak, the discussion builds momentum for greater progress through visibility and education.

And progress is being made. Take a look at some polling numbers on the shifting public opinion on relationship recognition:

To be clear, 60 percent of Americans live in places that don't offer protections for gay and lesbian couples. Additionally, DOMA deprives same-sex couples of over 1,100 federal rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marriage. DOMA has created a patchwork of confusing laws and rights across the country that denies same-sex couples and their families the basic rights and stability that comes with the federal recognition of their marriages. The discriminatory law's impact is far-reaching, affecting Social Security survivor benefits after a spouse passes away and the filing of joint federal income taxes, and prohibiting couples from taking unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. It also impacts immigration issues for same-sex couples, sometimes forcing the deportation of a non-citizen spouse. And despite the recent repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," DOMA impacts gay or lesbian service members by causing them to lose veterans spousal benefits. The so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" has created a separate and unequal status for same-sex couples in our country that is not only unfair but harmful to LGBT people and their families.

As Dr. King famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." What we are seeing is creation of momentum from many sides to help that arc bend faster toward justice and equality. The greater acceptance of marriage equality in the American public due to activism and visibility, legislative pressure like the Senate Judiciary Committee's vote to repeal DOMA, and court challenges against the discriminatory law all work in tandem to create an atmosphere where full equality is not just possible but inevitable.