Gay Marriage

No Senate Vote on Gay Marriage Until After Midterms

A genuine surprise: Politicians prioritize a bill’s possible success over partisan campaign signaling.


The Senate will not be voting this month on whether to legislatively enshrine federal same-sex marriage recognition into law. Instead, supporters of the bill are pushing the vote until after the midterms, ostensibly in the hopes it will bring more Republicans on board.

Just about a week ago, Senate sponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act said they thought they'd be able to get the 10 Republican votes necessary on board if they made some amendments to the bill in the name of protecting religious freedom. But Thursday afternoon, sponsors of the bill announced they're going to wait.

The Respect for Marriage Act passed the House in July, 267–157. The bill got 47 yes votes from Republicans. In the Senate, the bill needs 10 Republicans to support it to avoid a filibuster (assuming that all Democrats support it). Sen. Susan Collins (R–Maine) is one of the sponsors and had been working with Sens. Rob Portman (R–Ohio) and Thom Tillis (R–N.C.) to get those 10 votes by attempting to appeal to moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney (R–Utah).

But with the election so close, The Washington Post notes, some Republicans may be worried about voter responses. It's not likely to cause conservatives to switch votes to Democrats, but it could possibly cause some not to turn out at all. Portman, who is retiring after this year, said it will take "a lot of political sting out of it" if the vote happens in the post-midterm lame duck election.

The Respect for Marriage Act is intended to serve as a backstop protecting same-sex marriage should the Supreme Court decide to revisit and reverse Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 ruling that obligated the federal government and all states to legally recognize these relationships. The Respect for Marriage Act would require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it was permitted. And while it doesn't require any individual states to permit and license same-sex marriages within its own borders, it does require states to recognize marriages legally performed in other states.

There is absolutely no chance that the Supreme Court will reverse Obergefell in the next year, if ever, but it's nevertheless preferable for a democratic republic like the United States to put this policy into place via a law voted on by Congress and signed by the president rather than leaving it up to the judiciary. The recent reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973) has revived interest in "court proofing" legal recognition.

While the decision to delay the vote is obviously political, this is a situation where politicians are actually trying to get the law passed rather than win elections. For that reason alone, the delay should be appreciated. Particularly on LGBT issues, there is a number of examples where laws are deliberately crafted not to be passed but to serve as wedge issues to divide voters.

The Equality Act, for example, is often sold as a bill that would enshrine federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. But the bill is extremely broad, dramatically increasing what counts as a public accommodation under federal law and specifically forbidding people from using religious freedom against accusations of discrimination. It is seemingly designed to push Republicans away (which is exactly what happened last year) when a more compromising bill could get passed. But then Democrats and Republicans wouldn't be able to campaign on these culture war differences.

The decision to delay a vote here actually puts the success of a bill that matters to LGBT people ahead of political affiliation. Anybody disappointed that this bill will not be used as a campaign point should perhaps take a step back and stop trying to yank LGBT citizens around.