By Lisa Keen
When U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, introduced the Respect for Marriage Act in 2009, he conceded there was little chance for passage in the 111th Congress. Absent from the 102 co-sponsors that year was Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the most veteran and influential of the three openly gay members of Congress. He said the bill had “zero” chance of passage. Also missing was then-House Speaker Nancy Peolsi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., as co-sponsors, and there was no companion bill in the Senate.
Clearly, something’s changed.
When Nadler reintroduced his bill to the 112th Congress Wednesday morning, Frank, Pelosi, and Hoyer were among its 108 co-sponsors.
And the Nadler bill this year is joined by a first-ever companion bill in the Senate, introduced Wednesday by Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Christopher Coons of Delaware, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
What has not changed is the content of the legislation. The new Respect for Marriage Act is “precisely the same” as the last one, noted Nadler spokesman Ilan Kayatsky.
The measures seek to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Enacted in 1996, DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing the legally secured marriages of same-sex couples and allows states to ignore those marriages as well.
And there is still little likelihood of passage, at least in the Republican-controlled House.
But the legislation arrives to a political climate concerning same-sex marriage that is clearly changing.
The latest independent poll, completed March 1 and involving 1,504 adults nationally, shows – once again – a new high in support for allowing gays to marry. While 46 percent told the Pew Research Center they oppose allowing gays to marry, 45 percent said they favor doing so – a two-point jump in the space of six months. (Nine percent said they were unsure. The margin of error was plus or minus three points.)
A poll sponsored last week by the Human Rights Campaign found that 51 percent oppose DOMA, 34 percent favor it, and 15 percent had no opinion. When asked whether legally married gay couples should be able to obtain specific federal benefits provided to straight couples, 60 percent supported gay spouses being able to obtain Social Security benefits and 58 percent supported health coverage for federal employees’ same-sex spouses.
In a related development, bills were introduced to both chambers on March 10, seeking to enable coverage for domestic partners under COBRA.
COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) is the federal law that requires group insurance plans to enable employees and their families to continue paying for their health coverage for a period of time following the loss or change in employment status.
In the Senate, the Equal Access to COBRA Act (S. 563) was re-introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and has no co-sponsors; in the House, HR 1028 was introduced for the first time, by Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, with 45 co-sponsors.
“Current federal laws related to COBRA coverage do not apply to domestic partners or same-sex spouses – even at companies that offer health coverage to domestic partners of employees,” according to a press statement from Boxer’s office. The proposed law, said the statement, would apply to companies that already offer health coverage to domestic partners and their children.