Just as social issues are stealing some of the economy’s thunder in the Republican presidential nomination contest, the Obama administration is preparing to finalize regulations that would advance benefits for the same-sex partners of federal employees.

The regulations were proposed many months ago, but plans to make them final in this election year could draw distinctions between the approach President Obama and the GOP hopefuls take on social issues in general and those affecting gay men and lesbians in the federal workforce in particular.

And faced with a Republican-dominated House, the administration believes it must do what it can through regulation while still advocating related legislation, even when prospects for it are dim in this Congress.

“We’ve been working hard on a lot of domestic partner benefits,” Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said in a recent interview. “We will continue to pursue domestic partner benefit legislation for FEHBP [Federal Employees Health Benefits Program] and retiree benefits as an administration priority.”

The proposed regulations cover five areas:

●Allowing an employee to obtain child-care subsidies for the children of a same-sex domestic partner.

●Providing evacuation pay to cover an employee’s same-sex partner from an overseas location in the event of an emergency.

●●●Treating domestic partners like spouses for purposes of choosing an insurable interest option at retirement. This could provide a survivor annuity for a same-sex partner.

●●Making same-sex domestic partners of federal employees eligible for noncompetitive federal jobs when a staffer returns from an overseas assignment.

●●●Clarifying that the domestic partner of an employee may take advantage of an agency’s employee assistance program. The basic program services, according to OPM, include free, short-term counseling and referral for various issues affecting employees, such as substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems and psychological disorders.

“We issued those as proposed last year,” Berry said. “We’ll be going final with each of those this year . . . while we also fight for legislation . . . for FEHBP and retirement.”

The regulations that will be finalized in the last year of this presidential term flow from a presidential memorandum Obama issued a few months into his first year in office. His June 17, 2009, notice on “Federal Benefits and Non-Discrimination” told Berry to recommend “any additional measures that can be taken, consistent with existing law, to provide benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of Federal Government employees” and instructed the heads of executive departments and agencies to “conduct a review of the benefits provided by their respective departments and agencies to determine what authority they have to extend such benefits to same-sex domestic partners of Federal employees.”

In a statement issued with the memo, Obama said, “Extending equal benefits to the same-sex partners of Federal employees is the right thing to do. It is also sound economic policy. Many top employers in the private sector already offer benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees; those companies recognize that offering partner benefits helps them compete for and retain the brightest and most talented employees.”

In a related move, the General Services Administration, which sets travel reimbursement policies government-wide, issued a final regulation in September making domestic partners and their children eligible for certain travel- and relocation-related payments when accompanying a federal worker.

When Obama issued his memorandum, he also used the occasion to announce his support for the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act. It would provide same-sex partners all of the benefits, including health care and retirement, now available to the opposite sex spouses of federal workers. The legislation, which has been around since October 1997, is not likely to pass this year.

“While we are urging both the House and the Senate to pass the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, we recognize that it is unlikely to move forward this Congress, particularly in the House,” said Brian Moulton, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. “In the 111th Congress, the legislation passed out of both the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction. While the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee may again take it up . . . we do not expect House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman [Darrell] Issa [R-Calif.] to allow the bill to even be considered.”

Even if the committee did consider it, the Republican majority almost certainly would vote the bill down, given the views of the oversight committee’s federal workforce chairman, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.). Although there is nothing in the proposed regulations about same-sex marriage, Ross spokesman Fred Piccolo said: “This is nothing more than slowly defining marriage by regulatory fiat. Marriage isn’t in it by name, but this is part and parcel of the agenda. Something like federal recognition of a non-traditional union should be a matter for the people’s representatives.”

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

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