It has been more than 17 years since the Senate voted on the issue, and Monday’s vote was a vivid illustration of how new political currents have forced lawmakers from both parties to catch up with an electorate that is increasingly supportive of gay rights. Fourteen states have legalized same-sex marriage, and a majority of Americans believe gay couples should have the right to wed.
Advocates still face long odds in getting the legislation to President Obama’s desk. House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), who leads a GOP caucus dominated by social conservatives, reiterated his opposition to the measure Monday and said he would not bring it to the House floor regardless of its fate in the Senate.
But even in the face of obstacles, advocates say the debate has changed radically in their favor. They note that most opponents, including Boehner, have focused their concerns on allegations that the legislation would benefit trial lawyers and have shied away from the morality and family-values questions that once dominated the issue.
“There’s been a softer tone, and there’s been a recognition that anti-gay politics that may have worked in 2000 and in 2004 don’t work anymore,” said Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, a pro-gay-rights group funded by Republican mega-donors.
The roll call on the vote produced a rare moment of Senate drama, as a trio of prominent Republicans — Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) — holed up in the GOP cloakroom off the floor deciding at the last minute whether to back the legislation. Democrats needed those GOP votes to clear the 60-vote hurdle because a couple of supporters were absent.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the legislation’s main sponsor, negotiated with the GOP holdouts over the bill’s final details, and almost 40 minutes after the roll call began, the three Republicans voted for the measure.
A decade ago, the political calculation was far different. The brain trust of President George W. Bush’s reelection team encouraged a series of state ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage as a way to draw more conservatives to the polls. In 2006, running into the head winds of a midterm election, Senate Republicans pushed legislation that would have imposed a federal ban on same-sex marriage — in large part because GOP advisers considered it a winning political maneuver, even as it fell well short of the two-thirds majority required to amend the Constitution.
Even when Democrats held 60 Senate seats in 2009, the majority did not advance ENDA, partly out of fear that some incumbents in conservative-leaning states would not be able to support the measure because of a potential political backlash.