By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill said it appears unlikely that Congress will block a bill to be introduced Tuesday that would allow same-sex marriages in the District.
D.C. Council leaders have vowed to expedite the bill and said they hope to put it to a final vote before Christmas. But even if same-sex couples start marrying next year, the long-term survival of the practice would be in doubt for years, depending on the makeup of the House and Senate, congressional officials said.
"I hate to say this, but I think this is going to be rough sledding," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "I don't think [conservatives] are going to give us a pass. . . . I don't think we can always escape this issue coming to the floor."
On Tuesday morning, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) will introduce his bill, which says that "any person . . . may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender." The legislation, which has 10 co-sponsors including Catania, is expected to sail through the council's committee process. Under Home Rule, Congress will have 30 legislative days to review the council's action before it becomes law.
Given the stakes for the gay community locally and nationally, many city leaders and activists have begun calculating how Congress might react to the sight of same-sex couples getting married in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
In an interview, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she had received assurances from House Democratic leaders that she doesn't need to worry about congressional intervention.
"The House and Senate have their plates really full," Norton said. "I don't think this is anything that is going to somehow scramble over into that."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who tried to derail a bill passed by the council this year recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, also expressed doubts that he or other Republicans could be major obstacles.
"Given the gravity of health care and other tumultuous debate, it hasn't got much attention," said Chaffetz, the ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees the District. "You couple that with the Democrats' stranglehold on the rules, and the minority is left somewhat impotent."
Chaffetz said he plans to fight the council's bill, but he also said the issue could become entangled in a debate among Republicans on Capitol Hill over how far the party should go in speaking out against same-sex marriage.
"It's going to be a big symbolic issue, and the question is, are conservatives really going to make a stand?" said Linda McClain, a law professor at Boston University who is studying the same-sex marriage debate.
Despite the uncertainty, many D.C. Council members said they are taking a risk by putting the same-sex marriage issue before Congress as it gears up for next year's midterm elections.
Moran, who supports same-sex marriage, predicted up to 80 Democratic votes against the D.C. bill if it goes to the House.
"If we don't get any Republicans, we can only afford to lose 40 Democrats," said Moran, who said he thinks the Republicans will use the issue "to solidify their base" heading into the midterms.
Congress thwarted the District's effort this year for voting rights when both chambers approved an amendment that would have done away with most of the city's gun-control laws. Norton and Democratic leaders in Congress have temporarily shelved the voting rights bill.
But Norton said there are major differences between the gun and same-sex marriage issues.
With the gun amendment, she said, the National Rifle Association demanded loyalty from pro-gun Democrats, who risked losing the NRA's endorsement in future elections. Although conservative interest groups will probably lobby against permitting same-sex marriage in the District, Norton said those organizations don't have much influence with Democrats.
"Before, they had a gun at their head," Norton said. "We do not have a gun at their heads in this situation, where people would have to cower the way they did on guns."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that he opposes congressional intervention on the issue and that he is backed by most of the Democrats who represent the Washington region in Congress.
"Congress should allow the people of the District of Columbia to decide the question and not meddle in this local decision," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a position echoed by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).
But Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who represents part of Fairfax County, said through a spokesman that he would oppose allowing same-sex marriage in the District.
In the Senate, Maryland Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski said Congress should stay out of the matter.
Virginia's Democratic senators, James Webb and Mark R. Warner, supported the gun amendment, arguing at the time that it was guaranteed by the Constitution. But spokesmen for the senators said the debate over same-sex marriage should be a local issue.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who supports Catania's bill, said a bigger challenge would be keeping a member of Congress from trying to force a separate amendment onto another bill outlawing same-sex marriage in the District. A member could also move during the appropriations process to block the city from spending money on same-sex marriages.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has sponsored a bill outlawing same-sex marriage in the District, said the "odds are clearly not" in his favor as long as the Democrats control Congress.
"That doesn't mean we are not going to try," he said.