Talks on Same-Sex Benefits Began Months Ago

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 2:01 PM

The seeds for a presidential memorandum President Obama plans to sign today that would extend federal employee benefits for same-sex couples were planted last December during a meeting with advocates and the Obama transition team.

Over the course of 2 1/2 hours, representatives of several groups met with Valerie Jarrett, now one of the president's top White House advisers, and John Podesta, who along with Jarrett was a co-chair of the transition team, and discussed a range of issues important to gay and lesbian Americans.

"It was a very serious meeting, talking about appointments, talking about positions, talking about legislation," recalled Leonard Hirsch, the president of Federal Globe, an organization representing gay and lesbian federal workers. That meeting led to today's planned announcement about benefits.

According to a White House fact sheet: "For civil service employees, domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program; supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children. For foreign service employees, a number of benefits were identified, including the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation from posts abroad, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations."

Hirsch said relocation expenses also could be included under the memorandum. Relocation for federal employees is necessary for advancement and to fill critical agency needs, but the policy on paying to relocate a same-sex partner differs among agencies.

"Currently most agencies will not pay for the partner," he said. "They will pay for your pet, but they will not pay for your life partner."

Obama's announcement will please some more than others within the gay community.

"This is the next step of what hopefully will be many steps in moving toward equal rights for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in this country," Hirsch said this morning.

But while Brian Rice, a member of the Human Rights Campaign board of governors, said he is "very pleased to see that President Obama is extending benefits to same sex spouses of federal employees," he added that "this is really an action that he should have taken in January when he took office. To this point he has failed to deliver on campaign promises made to the gay and lesbian community, and we hope that this is the first step to fulfilling some of those promises."

Hirsch said it was not feasible for the White House to move as soon as some would have liked because time was needed to bring staff on board to implement the policy before it was announced.

"As a good bureaucrat I understand the importance of having their people in place before you go forward," said Hirsch, the international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution. "They are hewing to the law and their authorities."

Notably absent from the benefits extended to same sex couples are the government's most generous benefits, those covering the health care and retirement. Hirsch said Obama is limited by law and congressional action is needed to provide health and retirement benefits to same-sex partners.

To that end, Hirsch hopes the president will endorse bi-partisan legislation already under consideration on Capitol Hill.

That measure would provide domestic partners of federal workers the same benefits as the spouses of federal employees. In the Senate, the bill is sponsored by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the top Republican on the committee. The House sponsors are Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

When the bill was introduced, Baldwin, co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, said "extending benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees is more than a matter of fairness. As a majority of Fortune 500 companies have already demonstrated, equality and diversity in the workplace boost productivity and help attract and keep the most qualified employees."

Hirsch said he expects Obama will issue a "strong and vigorous" statement this afternoon on behalf of LGBT rights in the federal government.

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