Republicans holding fire on D.C. gay marriage law — for now

May 28, 2011

In the five months since they took control of the House, Republicans have banned government-funded abortions in the District, revived a private-school voucher plan and tried — so far unsuccessfully — to end the city’s needle-exchange programs.

Yet despite past efforts, Republicans have not mounted an assault this year on the District’s same-sex marriage law: No bill has been introduced to overturn it, nor has any lawmaker publicly sought support from colleagues for such a measure.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and other city activists are preemptively lobbying against any efforts to repeal the law. On Tuesday, she criticized Republicans for their efforts to slow the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. The issue was important, she said in a news release, “considering our determination to preserve our own marriage equality law, which is under attack in the House.”

If same-sex marriage in the District is “under attack,” it’s not clear who is leading the charge. Neither the chairmen of the committees that oversee D.C. issues nor the Republicans who previously offered such measures are planning to do so now, although the fight could surface in the appropriations process later this year.

In the last Congress, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced separate bills on the subject: The former would have defined marriage in the District as “the union of one man and one woman,” while the latter would have prevented the city from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the issue had been brought to a referendum.

The bills got 64 and 30 co-sponsors, respectively, but never came to a vote in a chamber then controlled by Democrats. Neither has been reintroduced this year.

Jordan, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told The Hill newspaper in January, “I think RSC will push for [a ban], and I’m certainly strongly for it,” but he didn’t specify who would head the effort. Asked on Thursday, Jordan said he still wasn’t sure who would offer legislation.

Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.) was the lead Democratic sponsor of Jordan’s bill. Now, according to a spokesman, Boren “doesn’t plan on being involved with that bill in this Congress as he is busy working on other legislative initiatives.”

Chaffetz previously served as the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that handles D.C. issues. But he has moved on to another committee assignment and is not focused on the District’s marriage law, according to a spokeswoman.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he knew of no campaign to repeal the law. “My committee has no intention at this time of overturning gay marriage,” Issa said this month, although he later clarified that he was speaking for himself as chairman and not for individual lawmakers.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), now chairman of the D.C. oversight subcommittee, responded similarly Tuesday. He said that he would support a bill to overturn the same-sex marriage law if one were introduced but that he had no interest in spearheading such an effort.

“I was not elected to be D.C. mayor, and I don’t aspire to be,” Gowdy said, echoing a previous comment by him on local issues.

The fact that no Republican has introduced a bill this year could be a sign that the majority plans to use a different tactic.

“They can’t get a stand-alone bill through both houses of Congress,” Norton predicted. “We’re expecting that they will try to use the appropriations process.”

Republicans have frequently gotten D.C.-related social “riders” signed into law by attaching them to must-pass spending bills. That’s what happened in April, when the abortion and private-school voucher measures were included in the spending resolution negotiated by President Obama and House Republicans.

If Republicans append a rider to a broader debt-reduction measure if one occurs, Obama and Senate Democrats would oppose such a move, but it’s unclear whether they consider the issue a deal-breaker.

Republicans have been focused on the economy and cutting the deficit and have devoted relatively little time to social issues. Tying D.C. marriage to a bill designed to create jobs or reduce the debt may not go over well with the public, said Fred Sainz of Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.

“It is way off-message,” he said.

But Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said House Republicans and other same-sex marriage opponents have simply been preoccupied with the court battle over the Defense of Marriage Act. (House Republican leaders have sought to defend the measure in court after the Obama administration decided to stop doing so.)

And while the District law might not be on the front burner, Brown said it would be soon.

“I expect that there will be some vote,” he said. “I don’t know what form it’s going to take.”

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