Don’t Let Republicans Off the Hook on Same-Sex Marriage

Why is it always on the Democrats to compromise?

To be the nice ones? To take the high road to nowhere?

On Thursday, the bipartisan group of senators behind the Respect for Marriage Act, which would have enshrined federal protections for same-sex marriage, announced a delay on putting the measure to a vote, which had been expected to take place this week.

According to the bill’s lead sponsor, Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, postponing the vote until after the November elections would increase the likelihood of getting the 10 Republicans on board necessary to push it through today’s filibustery Senate, where 60 votes would be needed for it to advance.

Baldwin, and Democrats generally, are essentially conceding that it will be hard to get Republicans to commit to a measure that’s anathema to their base prior to the midterm elections. That in the interest of actually passing the bill, as opposed to putting Republicans on the record with an unpopular, anti-same-sex-marriage vote, Democrats should be generous and allow Republicans more time to muster support.

Really? We’re supposed to believe it will be easier to bring Republicans on board after the election? If the Democrats retain the Senate post-election, Republicans will have little reason to vote against their base. If the Republicans retake the Senate, they’ll have less incentive still.

Please. This just makes things easier on Republican lawmakers: A vote would force them to dissatisfy either swing voters, with whom same-sex marriage is highly popular, or their extremist base, with whom (to put it mildly) it is not. Easier for Republicans to scurry away from a proposal that’s politically risky, just as they did earlier last week with Lindsey Graham’s unpopular bill on abortion. And they’re doing this at the expense of the many Americans in same-sex relationships — married, engaged or on the cusp of commitment — for whom this just makes life harder and more precarious.

This is exactly the moment to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire. It’s the moment for those Republicans who are in favor of gay marriage to stand up for what has become a clear majority position in the country, or to cave spectacularly to the prejudices of their base. As Senator Elizabeth Warren put it: “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.”

Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. They could be true believers, or they could simply be selling their souls in the interest of staying in office. But those who do support gay marriage need to act. Particularly given the ominous words of Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which many interpreted as a threat to revisit the landmark 2015 decision establishing the right to same-sex marriage.

If that right is no longer settled law, as had previously been assumed, it’s certainly a settled moral principle. Over the past seven short years and following the course of many long ones, same-sex marriage has reached the status of a basic and bedrock civil right. Currently 71 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. This not only includes the vast majority of Democrats, but as of 2021, 55 percent of Republicans according to Gallup. That is the definition of bipartisan consensus.

In theory, I’m as much in favor of bipartisanship as the next pragmatist, despite the consistent battering the practice has gotten, especially from Obama’s failed efforts to woo Republicans on the Affordable Care Act onward. It’s hard to hold much hope in the ideal.

When it comes to polarizing culture war issues, gay marriage may be the most unifying policy there is. Even under the capacious L.G.B.T.Q. umbrella, where disparate issues around sexual orientation, gay rights and gender identity split Americans across the political spectrum, you can’t get much closer to consensus than same-sex marriage. It may be the one clear-cut policy here that unites people rather than divides them.

Alas, and unsurprisingly, it was Republican senators who requested the delay. According to Politico, a number of Republican senators complained that if Chuck Schumer forced a vote on the measure on Monday, they’d view it as politically motivated. As if delaying the vote for explicitly political reasons wasn’t politically motivated?

What’s on Democrats here is the failure, once again, to play hardball — in the same way Republicans have done repeatedly and without remorse. To take just one recent and brazen example, Republicans pushed through a vote on Amy Coney Barrett days before an election, despite Democrats’ simmering fury over McConnell refusing to even consider Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination eight months before an election.

Instead, Democrats are effectively joining Republicans in putting politics ahead of principle — and purely on behalf of Republicans. If politics were remotely fair play, Republicans would return the favor by voting overwhelmingly in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act during the post-midterm lame-duck session.

Who here is holding their breath?

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