How the country’s first openly gay senator is asking GOP colleagues to back marriage equality
Tammy Baldwin/MSNBC screen shot

Originally published by The 19th

Sen. Tammy Baldwin wants her Republican colleagues to understand the dire consequences of losing access to same-sex marriage.

Baldwin, the country’s first openly gay senator, has taken the lead on trying to convince her colleagues to vote to protect marriage equality — seven years after that right was seemingly settled by the Supreme Court.

“There will be constituents of every senator who take this vote very personally,” Baldwin told The 19th in an interview on Wednesday.

LGBTQ+ advocates and legal experts fear Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that secured marriage equality for Americans, could be on the chopping block after the fall of Roe v. Wade.

That’s where Baldwin said she usually starts her appeal.

“I think a number of my colleagues are first questioning the timing of this and so I’m walking through why we’re bringing this up now, in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the Supreme Court and placing in jeopardy a number of rights and freedoms that were decided based on the same reasoning,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said she stresses to her colleagues just how important it is for Americans to have certainty in their marriages.

“The idea that you might in the future lose that recognition has huge consequences,” she said. “I think lots of folks think more about the ceremony or the wedding cake than they do the idea that if you are not married, you’re a legal stranger,” she said.

One consequence that’s on Baldwin’s mind: If someone’s spouse or partner gets hospitalized after an accident, being in an unrecognized marriage means having no right to information about their condition or to be at their bedside.

The House took protective action this month, with 47 Republicans backing a Democrat-led bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and require that all states legally recognize LGBTQ+ marriages that take place in other states. This legislation would set up a fail-safe route to marriage equality even if Obergefell is overturned. In the Senate, at least 10 Republicans need to get on board for the bill to succeed.

Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, plus Republican Sens. Rob Portman, Thom Tillis and Susan Collins have joined Baldwin’s effort to recruit Republican support for the bill. Five Senate Republicans have backed the bill publicly, and Baldwin said on Wednesday that more had have privately expressed their support — inching the total tally “very close” to 10 senators.

But Collins reportedly said on Thursday that the timing of Democrats’ deal on a bill aiming to curb the federal deficit, fight climate change and cut health care costs could jeopardize efforts to win Republican support for the Respect for Marriage Act.

Baldwin said that while sentiments in the Senate toward marriage equality have changed since she was sworn in in 2013, especially since more of her GOP colleagues know LGBTQ+ friends and family directly impacted by their policy positions on it, the chamber has not moved quickly enough to match public opinion.

A record 71 percent of Americans now support LGBTQ+ marriage – an indicator that has grown year over year.

“Arguably the Senate hasn’t progressed quite as fast as the American public has on this issue, but we’re getting there,” she said.

With the Defense of Marriage Act still on the books, the federal government would not recognize LGBTQ+ marriages if Obergefell is overturned — unless the Respect for Marriage Act is passed.

Twenty-five states have both a constitutional amendment and statute banning marriage for same-sex couples, per the Movement Advancement Project, which tracks LGBTQ+ rights nationally. Five other states ban LGBTQ+ marriage through constitutional amendment, and five more have statute bans.

The bill Baldwin and her colleagues want would offer interstate and federal protections for same-sex marriage, although it would still allow states to deny couples the ability to marry within their own state if Obergefell were overturned, LGBTQ+ experts told The 19th. Americans would be able to travel to another state to get married and their home state would have to recognize that marriage — but having to travel would still present obstacles to LGBTQ+ people of color and transgender people.

Baldwin hopes the Senate will be able to take up the Respect for Marriage Act for a vote before a month-long recess begins on August 8.

Until then, she’ll keep appealing to her colleagues — which sometimes involves invoking their personal relationships with LGBTQ+ people in their lives, although that’s not where she typically starts the conversation.

“We’re very close to 10, which is what we need to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. But I think I will keep on going beyond 10, just as extra insurance,” she said.