A leading Senate Republican warned Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) yesterday that a move to recognize gay marriages in the nation's capital would trigger a sharp backlash from Congress, and the mayor acknowledged that the District could jeopardize its budget agenda and domestic partner benefits if it mishandles the issue.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R), the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, said he wanted to hear more from Williams but opposed a statement by the city's attorney general that "validly married same-sex couples" may file joint D.C. tax returns.
"I was hopeful we weren't going to be confronting this issue. But it appears there will need to be a review and a discussion," said Brownback, 48, a potential presidential candidate in 2008 who sponsored an unsuccessful effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriages last year.
"I have been and continue to be a strong believer and protector of traditional marriage. I think it's an important issue for society and for the country," Brownback said. "This issue has now been moving across the country for several years, and I guess we will deal with something in D.C. now."
Across the nation, 40 states, including Virginia and Maryland, ban recognition of gay marriages or define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, according to Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy organization.
Maryland this year approved legislation granting medical decision-making rights and other privileges to same-sex couples, joining a list of six states and the District.
Brownback and other members of Congress reacted strongly to a statement this week by Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti regarding a tax-filing question by a gay District couple married last year in Massachusetts.
Spagnoletti said that the city's Office of Tax and Revenue reserves the authority to reject the couple's filing.
His comments forced the Williams administration to address a subject that it has ducked for a year.
At a lunch with Washington Post editors and reporters, Williams said the D.C government "will have a decision soon" on the legality of filings but declined to say whether the District would recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts.
Williams acknowledged that he received an opinion from Spagnoletti on the latter question a year ago and declined to make it public, but added, "I'm talking to my own general counsel . . . and to a number of different people."
Williams said that while he supports gay unions, "My personal opinion and what I do as a matter of the public policy of the District sometimes may be aligned and sometimes may be different."
At one point, the mayor ventured that the decision may lie with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, whose office oversees the tax collector and is an independent legal entity.
Gandhi said Tuesday that he would take no action without consulting Williams and Spagnoletti.
The mayor explained his reticence, saying he is "very -- extremely -- concerned" about the reaction by Congress, where "I think that a lot would be in jeopardy, yes."
He cited the District's $8 billion budget, which requires annual approval by Congress and which city officials have tried in recent years to rid of such controversial social issues as amendments barring its spending of tax dollars on free drug-needle exchange programs and statehood lobbying.
The District, which has a higher percentage of same-sex couples living together than any U.S. city after San Francisco, according to gay rights groups, also fought 10 years to get Congress to approve its domestic partner benefits program.
The law, implemented in July 2002, permits two unmarried people who live at the same residence to register with the Office of Vital Records to gain hospital visitation privileges, participate in medical decisions and to claim a partner's body after death.
"We're at a very, very difficult situation because we're not just any city," Williams said.
"We're concerned about the impact and ramifications as it relates to what we've been able to do with domestic partners . . . what we've been able to do in eliminating riders on the [budget] bill, that's one set of issues that are really implicated."