The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Breaking down the House vote to protect same-sex marriage

With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a person waves a rainbow flag at a rally in support of the LGBTQ community at Freedom Plaza on June 12, 2021, in D.C. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The text of the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), passed on Tuesday by the House of Representatives, is superficially anodyne. Over the span of a few terse paragraphs, it removes the prohibition on same-sex marriage introduced with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and stipulates that any individual’s marriage is federally recognized if it is legal in that person’s state.

But, of course, both the subject of same-sex marriage and the context for the introduction of this legislation are not frictionless. Views of same-sex marriage have liberalized remarkably since 1996, but there is still significant opposition. It was only last year, for example, that a majority of Republicans expressed support for same-sex unions in Gallup polling. The legislation was also a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, with the concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas indicating that the court’s legalization of same-sex marriage might be similarly targeted.

So while the vote on RFMA was not close, there was still significant opposition from House Republicans — opposition often couched as objections not to same-sex marriage but to Democrats insisting on the vote in the first place.

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The final vote was 267-157, with 47 Republicans joining the majority. (No Democrats voted against the bill.) Unsurprisingly, those Republicans that supported the bill tended to be from districts that voted for President Biden or narrowly for Donald Trump in 2020 and came from legislators who rated as less conservative on VoteView’s measure of ideology.

Republicans who voted against the bill came from districts that voted for Trump by a 24-point margin on average, compared to 10 points for those who supported it. The opponents’ DW-NOMINATE scores from VoteView averaged 0.55 (where 1 is the most conservative); supporters’ average score was 0.37.

Thanks to the longevity of service in Congress, a number of legislators who cast votes Tuesday on RFMA had also been in the House for the 1996 DOMA vote. Of the Democrats who were in the House for both votes, about half had opposed DOMA at the point when it was first passed. Of the Republicans who were present for both, two switched their positions from opposition to same-sex marriage (that is, backing DOMA) to support for the new bill.

What’s interesting about the RFMA vote, of course, is the intentional framing: State determinations, not federal ones, should be the standard the government respects. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe was championed by the right in part for doing precisely that sort of redelegation of power.

DOMA’s original prioritization of federal authority over state laws, of course, went the other way. It went the same way, in fact, as the response to the 2020 presidential election, in which Republican legislators broadly rejected electors submitted by Arizona and Pennsylvania in a futile effort to block Biden’s inauguration. (This was of a piece with the effort from Republican state attorneys general a few weeks earlier to convince the Supreme Court to reject votes cast in other, swing states.)

More than 100 Republicans both voted against the Respect for Marriage Act and supported efforts to reject those Biden electors. Only about two dozen both supported RFMA and the counting of those electoral votes — among them Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), the two GOP members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

The Respect for Marriage Act now heads to the Senate. If it passes, it is expected that Biden will sign it into law.

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