A bill that would federally protect same-sex marriages sailed through the House on Tuesday with bipartisan support, a historic moment that marks a capstone to the nation’s quarter-century evolution on LGBTQ rights and a response to fears that an emboldened Supreme Court was poised to take away hard-won civil rights.
Tuesday’s bipartisan vote proves a striking evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage for members of both parties. Just a decade ago, Democratic Vice President Joe Biden got castigated for announcing his support for gay marriage before the sitting president, Barack Obama, had announced his own views on the issue. More than a decade before that, Biden helped pass the Defense of Marriage Act in the Senate, while House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) joined 116 Democrats supporting it in the House.
Now, on the cusp of seizing the majority of the House, Republicans split into competing camps over the onetime hot-button issue as Democrats were completely unified in protecting a right that the Supreme Court had issued seven years ago. Some of Trump’s fiercest allies voted with Democrats, particularly Stefanik.
Yet just more than 20 percent of the Republican conference voted in support of the legislation, a sign that even though marriage equality has become more broadly accepted across the country, Republicans don’t have a unified view on what some consider progressive social issues.
It’s unclear if the legislation has enough support in the Senate for passage. And Democratic leaders didn’t commit to bringing it up for a vote, stating the legislative schedule ahead of the midterms may not allow for immediate consideration.
House Democrats scheduled the vote Tuesday in response to an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last month in which he openly questioned whether the court “should reconsider” rulings that guaranteed access to birth control and same-sex couples’ right to marriage — two issues many Americans have viewed as settled law.
Thomas’s opinion — filed as a concurrence to the Supreme Court ruling that overturned federal abortion protections in Roe v. Wade — opened the door for congressional Democrats to attempt to draw a sharp contrast between themselves and Republicans ahead of the fall midterm elections.
This week’s votes come on the heels of a House vote last week codifying the reproductive rights protections derived from the now overturned Roe v. Wade ruling and granting protections to people who travel out of state to obtain an abortion. The latter gained support of just three Republicans — two of whom are not seeking reelection.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who is at risk of losing her reelection in a state where abortion is legal, attempted to force a vote by unanimous consent, a dramatic tactic to send a message on legislation that doesn’t have the votes, on a freedom to travel bill last week. It was blocked by Republicans.
Democrats still hope to use Tuesday’s vote, as well as another expected later this week on access to contraception, to paint Republicans as extremists who do not support social freedoms ahead of the midterms. Republican leadership was split on the issue, with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) voting against it, giving Democrats the green light to paint the party in broad strokes as extreme.
“I don’t think that undermines our ability to say they are extreme — the overwhelming majority of them are going to vote against this,” Hoyer said. “But I think it proves the point, that if they were in charge, things like this would not get on the floor.”
Several House Democratic “front-liners” — the title given to the most vulnerable legislators representing swing districts — welcomed Republican support on such legislation even if its passage in the Senate remains unclear, a pathway that often prompts the group to scowl at such messaging bills.
Asked whether GOP support on either bill this week could undercut Democratic messaging, Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said she would “be delighted if we have that problem.”
“If that turns out to be the case and we are overreacting on these two issues, great," she said. “I’m not going to worry about whether that’s going to undercut Democratic messaging in the midterms and all that stuff. I’ll be thrilled if that happens.”
While still expressing their disappointment at the Supreme Court ruling, Democrats have predicted that overturning abortion access could give them a lift with voters. A New York Times/Siena College poll of registered voters this month saw majority support for abortion access increase since September 2020, from 60 percent to 65 percent.
But the same poll also showed that their argument may not break through as much as Democrats hope. Among registered voters, abortion ranked fifth behind crime, gun policies and the economy as the issues guiding their vote in November. Inflation and cost of living was the top issue of concern.
Several Republican aides and campaign strategists highlighted that and similar polling Monday, noting voters are more concerned about other issues Democrats have not been able to address.
The votes this week still present a tricky spot for Republicans, many of whom want to avoid debating what they, too, deem noncontroversial issues.
Last September, McCarthy suggested he supported same-sex marriage when asked if he agreed with Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) change of heart on the issue, describing it as “the law of the land.”
McCarthy, who did not whip the vote and let Republicans vote as they wished, told The Washington Post he didn’t vote for it “because it was a political game by the Democrats."
”They’re not being serious about the issues that the American public care most about (like) inflation. This is not an issue that’s coming before us," McCarthy said. “And I just think you give them more fodder to keep playing political games instead of being serious about the issues we need to work on.”
Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), who is up for reelection but easily won his primary earlier this summer, was surprised by a question Monday about possibly voting on federally protecting marriage equality and contraception.
“I just didn’t know that this was an issue that was likely to be before Congress,” he said. “I’ll speak to my colleagues, but it’s a serious issue to, you know, millions of Americans, myself included.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) likewise said she feels “pretty strongly about making sure women have contraception.” Ernst introduced legislation in 2019 that would expand access to over-the-counter contraception without a prescription and allow for people to pay for it with their Health Savings Accounts.
But she was noncommittal about voting for federal protections for contraception, saying it perhaps should be up to the states. “I don’t think states will go that far,” she added.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also was noncommittal, saying he hasn’t decided if he’d support the measures should they be voted on in the Senate.
Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) led Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) in introducing counter-legislation Tuesday that would provide over-the-counter birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration to women 18 and older. It’s unclear if the Democratic majority will bring the bill to a floor vote.
“Millions of American women safely use oral contraceptives and enabling women to access birth control pills at their local pharmacy is common-sense policy,” Hinson said.
Senate Democrats are also expected to force a vote Thursday on a bill by Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that would increase federal funding through Title X for family planning services, including increased access to birth control.
“Here is their chance for Republican senators to show that they mean it — that they will stand up for access to birth control,” Sen. Smith told reports Tuesday.
House Republicans have not introduced any legislation that would bar access to birth control or in vitro fertilization. Several GOP aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said there is little support for voting on issues that are widely supported by voters, like access to birth control, because it could put their members in a vulnerable position.
Republican leaders are not signaling to members how they should vote, expecting a large number to join Democrats in passing the legislation, according to several leadership aides and two members who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. But Republicans were prepared to argue against the legislation this week.
During a House Rules hearing on the contraception legislation Monday, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn.) both said they support access to contraception and are willing to work with Democrats to find a compromise bill. But both accused Democrats of putting together a bill without GOP input that, Rodgers argued, only “opens the door further to their extreme abortion-on-demand agenda.”
“I’m anxious. I have time. Let’s sit down, let’s write a bill. But this is just a big distraction,” Rodgers said.
While debating marriage equality, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) did not say whether he or other Republicans were against same-sex or interracial marriage, but rather accused Democrats of not working with Republicans and instead pushing an “unfounded fear” based on Thomas’ concurrence.
“[Thomas] simply questioned the ‘how,’ ” Roy said. “At the same time in the majority opinion, there are numerous specific mentions by the majority suggesting that the majority had no interest in touching those cases.”
Front-liners also see opportunity for the Senate to possibly pass such bills, especially after Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) co-sponsored the marriage equality legislation.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters Monday that he would support putting both bills up for a floor vote once they pass the House.
“I’d like to see it brought up and I’d like to vote on it, but I can’t say that it will be scheduled. There’s just so many things and so little time,” he said.
On Tuesday, however, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said bringing the House bills should be a priority.
“We’re going to look at everything that we can do to deal with these issues. We don’t want to see the country move back,” he said.
A previous version of this article said just more than 10 percent of the Republican conference voted in support of the Respect for Marriage Act. It was just more than 20 percent. The article has been corrected.
Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America
What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.
State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.
How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.