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Why did Senate Democrats pull back on the Respect for Marriage Act?
Postponing a vote until after the mid-terms gives the GOP a pass. Democratic leaders' explanations don't make much sense.
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Just a month ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was adamant about having a vote on the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate. The bill would have the federal government recognize same-sex marriage and interracial marriage by law. The bill was spurred by the fear that the Supreme Court, following the wishes of Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent in the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, could overturn the Obergefell marriage equality ruling.
But this week Democratic leaders abruptly decided not to hold the vote in coming days, bowing to Republican claims — Senator Susan Collins in particular — that the votes from Republicans wouldn’t be there to break a filibuster, but would likely be there if the vote comes after the mid-term elections, when Republicans aren’t feeling the heat of their base.
This completely defies the entire point of having the vote: To put the GOP senators, including those up for re-election, on the spot before the mid-terms, after 47 GOP House members voted for the bill and polls show over 70% of Americans support same-sex marriage.
The sudden delay on a vote angered many Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, who said, “We need to vote on equal marriage today. Every single member of Congress should be willing to go on the record. And if there are Republicans who don’t want to vote on that before the election, I assume it is because they are on the wrong side of history.”
Openly gay Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York tweeted out his criticism to Schumer.
It appeared as if openly lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the lead negotiator, was buying Collins’ arguments that the bill won’t pass now, but will pass later. Now, we all know that Susan Collins’ main goal in the Republican Party is to make sure Democratic initiatives actually don’t happen. She’s used by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to stall bills — as we saw in her attempt with the American Rescue plan and countless other pieces of legislation. So it seems naive to be listening to her.
Besides that, the plan was never first and foremost to pass the bill by any means necessary — including if that meant holding off while negotiating. The plan was to make the Republicans take a difficult vote — one that many wouldn’t want to take and which many would, if forced, vote yes on, just as a relatively large number of their colleagues in the House did when push came to shove.
Schumer and the leadership have telegraphed that plan on several occasions in late summer. He announced Democrats would likely take up the bill after it passed the House in July, though hadn’t committed to it. After the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August, however, Schumer said amid his celebratory statements that the Respect for Marriage Act would definitely be voted on next — with no caveats such as, “if the Republican votes are there.” Though there wasn’t time before the recess, he said it would come in September. The statement was unequivocal.
Reuters, distilling Democratic leaders’ statements, described the purpose of the bill like this at the time:
Democrats have seen the bill as a way to highlight their contrasts with Republicans as soaring inflation and President Joe Biden's slumping job performance numbers jeopardize Democrats' razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.
So it was always about having the vote, no matter what might happen.
“Let me be clear a vote will happen – a vote on marriage equality will happen on the Senate floor in the coming weeks, and I hope there will be 10 Republicans to support it,” Schumer said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
He held out “hope” there would be 10 Republicans but he made it “clear” that a “vote will happen” no matter what.
So what happened? Even if Republicans were getting cold feet about voting for it now but might vote for it after the election, why not make them vote for it now — and put them on the spot, which may result in its passage — and make them vote for it again after the election if it doesn’t pass?
As Senator Warren and Congressman Maloney underscore, the strategy of putting off the vote doesn’t make sense — unless there are some other factors involved.
A concurrent eruption of tension has surfaced among Democratic senators regarding the deal Schumer made with Senator Joe Manchin in return for his vote on the Inflation Reduction Act. That included a vote on drilling for oil and gas in West Virginia — a vote Schumer promised would come in weeks. Progressive Democratic senators are now balking at it, and don’t appear to be down with voting for it — and that includes Elizabeth Warren.
Obviously Schumer is maintaining fierce allegiance to Manchin, whom he got to vote for the Inflation Reduction Act. And Schumer will have to get some Republicans to vote for Manchin’s pipeline deal if it’s to pass, especially if a bunch of Democrats vote against it.
This is only speculation, but could Susan Collins have made it clear to Schumer that the GOP would oppose that deal if the Respect for Marriage Act comes up before the election? I wouldn’t put it past her. Maybe even Manchin told Schumer he won’t vote for the marriage bill if it means his pipeline deal dies.
Who knows? Again, it’s just speculation. It could be any of a number of things. But it does seem there’s more to the abrupt decision not to vote on the Respect for Marriage Act than meets the eye. That’s because the initial goal was to simply force the Republicans to vote on it before the mid-terms, putting them on the spot. And now the stated goal is the opposite of that.