WASHINGTON — It started for Democrats as a messaging vote, an election-year political maneuver to show voters that they were doing everything possible to protect marriage equality in the face of new threats from a conservative Supreme Court — and a move to challenge Republicans to force their opposition to the plate.
But when the House voted this week on the Respect for Marriage Act, which would codify federal protections for same-sex couples, 47 Republicans voted yes. That raised the possibility that there could be a narrow two-pronged path for legislation to pass in the Senate and make its way into President Biden’s office to be signed into law.
Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and the minority leader who has positioned himself as an obstacle to most of the Democrats’ agenda, declined to reveal a position on the bill. And on Wednesday, four Republican senators — Maine’s Susan Collins, Ohio’s Rob Portman, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis — said they supported it.
Within 24 hours, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, switched from refusing to commit to a vote on the measure on Tuesday, to saying he intended to bring it up. Mr. Schumer also said he was working to get the required 10 Senate Republicans on board to ensure it could get a bill past a filibuster.
“This legislation is so important, I was really impressed with how much bipartisan support it got in the House,” he said on Wednesday.
There was no guarantee that Republicans would allow the measure to pass in the Senate. But developments made it clear that a bill that was supposed to be dead on arrival was now an open question — and that the evenly divided Senate would likely begin to consider, months before the midterm elections, whether same-sex couples have the right to to marry.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who became the first openly gay woman elected to the Senate in 2012, spoke with Republicans to gauge whether there would be enough support to pass the bill, Schumer said. He also discussed it with Ms. Collins, a co-sponsor, on Wednesday, an assistant said.
Pressure in Congress to pass legislation codifying marriage protection came after Judge Clarence Thomas last month suggested in an advisory to nullify abortion rights that the court should “reconsider” previous rulings finding marriage equality and access to contraception.
With their control of Congress on the line in November’s election, Democrats are trying to make a clear distinction from Republicans on issues that have broad public support. The overthrow of Roe v. Wade last month dramatized the stakes and drove home the prospect that the court could remove more protections without appealing to Congress if Republicans win the majority.
Roe’s demise also sparked outrage among progressives who sharply criticized Democratic leaders for failing to guarantee abortion rights when given the chance and slow to respond to a Supreme Court ruling that had been anticipated for months.
But on the issue of same-sex marriage, as opposed to abortion, Republicans are deeply divided. Many conservative lawmakers have changed their minds over the past decade as the country has generally come to accept same-sex marriage as a permanent fixture.
About 71 percent of Americans, including most Republicans, support it, according to a recent Gallup poll, up from just 27 percent in 1996.
Mr Portman, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation, changed his stance in 2013 after his son came out as gay. In the House, Wyoming Republican Representative Liz Cheney admitted last year that “I was wrong” to oppose same-sex marriage, reversing a long-standing position that had put her at odds with her family, including her sister, who is gay and married.
While the proportion of House Republicans backing marriage equality legislation this week was higher than expected, it was less than a quarter of the conference. Most Republican senators were also unenthusiastic about the bill.
On Wednesday, many of them were dismissive or noncommittal about how they would vote, with some accusing Democrats of trying to distract from inflation and other pressing national issues. Others argued that the vote was unimportant or unnecessary because the protection of same-sex marriage was not really threatened.
South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune told DailyExpertNews that he respected the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, but that undoing it “at this point was not an issue where anyone talking about”.
Judge Thomas spoke of it in his recent op-ed, and Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. has also previously suggested that Obergefell should be revisited, arguing that it invented a right that has no basis in the text of the Constitution.
Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville said he saw no need to pass legislation to protect same-sex marriage, but he supported it in practice.
“Yeah, if that’s what you want to do, fine,” he told reporters.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he would oppose the bill and told DailyExpertNews it was a “stupid waste of time.”
He added, “I know a lot of gays in Florida who are upset about gas prices.”
Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney said he was not focused on the bill because same-sex marriage was still protected by Obergefell.
“I don’t think we need to worry about it unless there was some development that suggested the law would be changed,” Romney said.
Senate Democratic aides said it was encouraging that House Republican leaders did not cast “no” votes on the bill on Tuesday, indicating the party was divided on the issue of same-sex marriage. In fact, the party’s leaders were divided on the bill.
The top two Republicans, Representatives Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, voted against. But Republican No. 3, New York Representative Elise Stefanik, and Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer, the chairman of the GOP’s campaign committee, were in favor.
Still, it was not clear where six more Republican votes for the legislation in the Senate could be found.
Mr McConnell, who has explicitly said in the past that the party should appeal to suburban voters, did not raise his hand.
“I’m going to postpone announcing anything on that matter until we see what the majority leader wants to put on the agenda,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
If the Supreme Court were to overturn the 2015 ruling establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the bill would require states to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere.
The bill would also protect interracial marriages; the Supreme Court overturned state laws against such unions in a 1967 case. Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan.
Democrats saw no political downside to waiting to see if they could gather enough votes to be hired. Until then, they privately remarked that they were forcing Republicans to squirm as reporters peppered them with questions about an issue that most of the rest of the country had long decided to be undisputed.
On Wednesday, as Republican senators questioned their positions, the Senate Majority PAC, which raises money to protect and expand the Democratic majority in the Senate, noted that many Republican senators “refuse to say whether they would protect basic human rights” and that “a Republican Senate majority would be dangerous to our country.”