The Senate on Wednesday afternoon will hold a crucial test vote on legislation to provide federal protections for same-sex marriage, with proponents in both parties expressing fresh hope that they had at least 10 Republican votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster and move it through the 50-50 chamber.
In the wake of midterm elections in which they retained control of the Senate but were on track to lose the House to the Republicans, Democrats made the same-sex marriage bill one of their first major agenda items in the postelection session, moving quickly to enact it while their party still controls both chambers.
The push in Congress to pass legislation codifying marriage protections came after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested over the summer in an opinion overturning abortion rights that the court “should reconsider” past rulings that established marriage equality and access to contraception.
A successful vote on Wednesday would be a crucial signal that the Respect for Marriage Act was on track to become law, an improbable outcome for a measure that was once regarded as a symbolic act by Democrats against solid Republican opposition that would block it from clearing Congress. Instead, it passed in the House in July with 47 Republicans joining Democrats in favor, and a bipartisan group in the Senate began talks on a version that could draw enough Republican backing in that chamber to move forward.
The Senate negotiators, led by Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin and the first openly gay woman to be elected to the House and the Senate, altered the measure to address concerns about religious liberty exceptions. Should it advance on Wednesday and pass the Senate in a vote that is expected after Thanksgiving, it would need to pass the House in its revised form before being sent to President Biden to be signed into law.
Understand the Same-Sex Marriage Bill
The Respect for Marriage Act would codify marriage equality.
Democrats had initially taken up the measure as an election-year maneuver to show voters that they were doing everything possible to protect same-sex marriage rights in the face of new threats from a conservative Supreme Court.
But after an unexpected number of House Republicans voted for it over the summer, Democrats grew optimistic about its chances of enactment. Momentum on the issue, however, hit a snag when the Senate moved forward instead with the Inflation Reduction Act, and Ms. Baldwin, the lead sponsor, pressed Democratic leaders to delay a vote until after the elections, when she felt more confident she could draw enough Republican support to ensure its passage.
That calculation, which irked some progressive Democrats, appears to have paid off, with some Republican senators who last summer would not publicly express support saying this week they planned to vote for the bill.
“I don’t know that marriage should be a partisan issue,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, told reporters. “But I do believe that the protections afforded religious institutions are important, and if they’re included in the final bill, I intend to support it.”
His comments came on the same day that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it would back the legislation, a drastic shift for an organization whose doctrine states that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The bill would not require any state to allow same-sex couples to marry. But it would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Over the past few months, Ms. Baldwin and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, have worked with Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, and the Republican Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Thom Tillis of North Carolina to address concerns among some Republicans that the bill could violate the religious liberty of those who do not accept same-sex marriages as valid.
They agreed to add language ensuring that churches, universities and other nonprofit religious organizations could not lose tax-exempt status or other benefits for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages and could not be required to provide services for the celebration of any marriage. They also added language to make clear that the bill does not require or authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages.