WASHINGTON — Senator Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin’s mild-mannered liberal Democrat, was on a plane home from Washington last month when she learned that Senator Ron Johnson, her home state colleague and a far-right Republican, had said publicly that he would not oppose a bill to protect same-sex marriage.
Seizing a rare moment when she and Mr. Johnson—opposites anyway—could agree on something, Mrs. Baldwin typed him a text saying she was excited.
“Don’t let them add anything unpleasant,” Mr. Johnson replied.
“I said I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the chance of death,” Ms Baldwin said in an interview in her Senate hiding place last week. “But we can disagree on what is ‘offensive’.”
Mr Johnson replied with a thumbs up emoji and wished her a nice weekend.
Ms. Baldwin, 60, who became the first openly gay woman elected to Congress in 1999, helped drive the effort to win over the 10 Republican senators whose support is needed to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, that would provide federal protections for same-sex marriage rights at a time of mounting fears that they are at risk.
Now Mrs. Baldwin, whose serene temperament and restraint set her apart from her more press-preening and partisan colleagues, came to the limelight as a pivotal player in a surprising legislative push just weeks before the midterm congressional elections to ensure rights for married couples of same sex are recognized across the country.
So far, five Republicans, including Mr. Johnson, have publicly stated that they would support the legislation, which the House passed last month with an unexpectedly large share of the GOP vote. The others are Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Ms. Baldwin says at least five other Republicans have assured her that they will also support the bill if New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer keeps his promise to bring it up, probably sometime after. the Labor Day.
“My Republican colleagues know more and more gay people who are married,” said Ms. Baldwin. “They see that the sky has not fallen. Perhaps some of them went to these ceremonies. Some may know that, but for that marriage certificate, their niece would not have been able to see her wife in the hospital because she would have been a legal alien.”
Democrats are pushing for legislation to be passed in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the nearly 50-year right to abortion, fearing that precedents on same-sex marriage and protecting the rights of such couples could include fall. In a consensus in the abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Judge Clarence Thomas suggested the court should also “reconsider” previous rulings establishing marriage equality and access to contraception.
Major Supreme Court decisions this term
A memorable term. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several important decisions during its last term, including rulings on abortion, guns and religion. Here’s a look at some of the key cases:
The House quickly passed the same-sex marriage bill, as Democrats scrambled to make themselves known on the issue and Republicans on the ground ahead of the election. But 47 Republicans voted in favor — less than a quarter of the conference but still a larger share than expected — and Mr. Schumer said he would work to find the necessary votes to take it past a filibuster and to the vote.
Within hours, a bill that many believed would be dead on arrival in the Senate became the subject of intense legislative pressure.
Ms. Baldwin, the epitome of the nice Midwesterner who enjoys sewing and cooking — hobbies she describes as “boring” — is in some ways an unlikely arm-turner for the effort.
She was never one to seek attention, but she downplayed the historic nature of her victory when she won her Senate seat ten years ago, halfway through her speech before saying she was “well aware” that her election was a milestone for gay rights. (She also made history in 1999 with her election to the House, the first openly gay woman to serve there.)
Mrs. Baldwin herself is not married, although she had a partnership that has since been dissolved.
The matter defined her career in public office. Ms. Baldwin began working on marriage and domestic partnership law in the 1990s as a member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors and in the Wisconsin State Assembly, at a time when, she said, “all the results were bad.”
The picture is very different today, she noted. Since 2015, when the Supreme Court established constitutional marriage rights for same-sex marriage, the number of Americans in such marriages has risen to more than 1.1 million. Elected officials in both political parties feel more personally involved in the issue, and many see their families in danger.
“People are literally afraid of their marriage being dissolved by the court,” Ms Baldwin said. “The important rights associated with marriage at the state and federal levels can evaporate.”
Still, the marriage equality law has a narrow path in the evenly divided Senate, and the Democrats took no chances. Mr. Schumer, wary of banking on private bailouts, has told Ms. Baldwin he wants a buffer, and has her on the hunt for a few more Republicans to add to her “yes” column to comfortably bill. to keep up with any last minute cold feet. (Still, Mr. Schumer has pledged to put the bill to a vote regardless of the final outcome.)
For example, Democrats and Republicans who support the measure worried whether Mr. Johnson, who said he saw “no reason to oppose the legislation,” could be considered a reliable “yes” on any procedural vote to pass. to ensure. If he just voted “present,” they would still need another Republican to support the legislation to pass it. Mr Johnson’s office declined to clarify its position.
In view of potential roadblocks, Ms. Baldwin has worked with her co-workers, on the phone on weekends and wherever she meets a Republican during her day job.
Even as the issue came to a low ebb as the Democrats’ climate and health package took up the final days before the Senate recess, Ms. Baldwin teamed up with Ms. Collins to garner more support among Republicans. build by adding language that explicitly states that it does not take away any religious freedom or protection of conscience.
Dressed in a seafoam green jacket, she quietly conferred on the Senate floor last week with her desk mate, Indiana Republican Senator Mike Braun, who said he was undecided on how to vote on the bill. Mr. Braun listened intently, at one point picked up a pen and began taking notes as Mrs. Baldwin spoke.
As she tied a knot with Senator Todd Young, the Indiana Republican, Mr. Young was heard to say to Ms. Baldwin, “Oh wow, that would be powerful,” and he wondered if he could get reports from the Congressional Research Service. related to their discussion.
Ms. Baldwin has made an effort to convince Republicans that it is safe to support the measure. She said she reminded Utah Senator Mitt Romney that all four of his colleagues in Utah’s all-Republican House delegation had voted “yes.”
The whip operation began almost immediately after the House vote, when Mrs. Baldwin walked to the floor to introduce the Senate version of the bill and ran into Mr. Portman.
“I had on my smartphone the names of all the Republicans who had just voted in the House, and there were a lot of Republicans from Ohio,” said Ms. Baldwin. “I said, ‘Rob, look at this!'”
“I started talking to others and it went from hypothetical to, ‘We could really do this,'” she said.
In her conversations, Ms. Baldwin emphasized that the bill is simple – less than four pages long. She has told other Republicans that a line of reasoning like Mr. Johnson’s — that legislation isn’t necessary, but there’s no harm in passing it — is a perfectly acceptable justification for a “yes” vote.
The lobbying effort was as non-confrontational as Ms. Baldwin is. Right after Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio dismissed the bill to a DailyExpertNews reporter as a “stupid waste of time,” Ms. Baldwin found herself in an elevator with him alone. The elevator ride was described as a “showdown” with a senator in the red for reelection.
But Mrs. Baldwin is not one for heated encounters. She said she was exiting the elevator and politely told Mr. Rubio, “We’ll stop by here some other time.” (The two have indeed visited again on the matter, a spokesperson said.)
Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat and the second openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Senate, has also worked closely with Ms. Baldwin to rally Republican support for the bill. She spoke to Mr. Johnson on the Senate floor before Ms. Baldwin texted him, and has worked closely with Mr. Tillis and Mr. Portman, her spokeswoman said.
Ms. Baldwin said she was determined to make sure the Senate doesn’t make the same mistake regarding marriage equality as she thought it did regarding abortion — that is, waiting until it was too late to try federal establish safeguards for rights that the court has already found protected by the Constitution.
So she didn’t take anything for granted. Counting noses, Ms Baldwin said she has kept the coronavirus in mind, knowing that in a 50-50 Senate, even one case would wipe out the margin of support needed to send the bill to a final vote.
“We need everyone here. If we have two Democrats with Covid, I need two more Republicans, which I may have, but you don’t want to roll the dice,” Ms Baldwin said. “You want to be sure.”
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington.