On Thursday, a bipartisan coalition of Senators shepherding a bill to protect the right to same-sex and interracial marriage announced that the vote on the bill would be delayed—hours before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was expected to tee up the legislation for a vote early next week.
“The Respect for Marriage Act is a simple but important step which provides certainty to millions of Americans in loving marriages,” said the bill’s chief negotiators, Democrats Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema and Republicans Susan Collins, Rob Portman and Thom Tillis, in a statement. “Through bipartisan collaboration, we’ve crafted commonsense language that respects religious liberty and Americans’ diverse beliefs, while upholding our view that marriage embodies the highest ideals of love, devotion, and family. We’ve asked Leader Schumer for additional time and we appreciate he has agreed.”
This announcement marks a sudden change in the timeline for the legislation and may push the eagerly awaited vote to after the midterm election. Baldwin and the bill’s GOP supporters have been involved in ongoing negotiations to secure the 10 Republican votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster and pass the legislation, which included drafting new language to include explicit references to religious liberty.
But the announcement of the vote’s delay Thursday afternoon suggests that those changes haven’t secured up the remaining six GOP votes the bill needs (four Republican Senators have already come out in support of the measure). “Leader Schumer is extremely disappointed that there aren’t 10 Republicans in the Senate willing to vote yes on marriage equality legislation at this time,” Justin Goodman, a spokesperson for Schumer, said in a statement. “Because Leader Schumer’s main objective is to pass this important legislation, he will adhere to the bipartisan group of Senators’ request to delay floor action, and he is 100 percent committed to holding a vote on the legislation this year.”
Talking to reporters on Thursday, Baldwin of Wisconsin remained optimistic about the legislation’s prospects: “When it gets to the floor, it’s going to pass,” she said.
Portman of Ohio, who is working with Baldwin to secure votes, told TIME on Thursday that they have been working to add language clarifying that the bill would not negatively impact “religious organizations that provide services, such as adoption.”
Senator Mitt Romney—a Republican from Utah who has broken from his party in the past—is among the Senators whose vote the coalition is seeking. Romney told TIME on Thursday that he’s been working with the bill’s negotiators on “religious liberty provisions” and said his suggestions have “by and large been included.” While Romney declined to say how he plans to vote come November, he added that he’s “pleased with the progress that has been made.”
The bill, called the Respect for Marriage Act, would repeal the decades-old Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which federally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman—and prevent state law from not recognizing marriages on the basis of “the sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin of those individuals.” The bill was introduced by Democrats in the House of Representatives this summer shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. LGBTQ advocates raised alarm that the decision could pave the way for the Supreme Court to overturn 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges—which overrode DOMA and established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage—something Justice Clarence Thomas’ suggested he’d like to do in a concurring opinion in Dobbs.
On July 19, the bill was passed by the House 267 to 157. This surprised some supporters as 47 Republicans including leaders supported it. In the Senate, all 50 Democrats and four Republican Senators—Portman, Tillis, Collins, and Murkowski—are supporting the bill.
Collins told TIME Thursday that their coalition has received “a lot of excellent input and suggestions from our colleagues on religious liberties issues” and added she’s been pleased “to see how constructive everyone has been in providing us with suggestions.”
It’s not yet clear if the inclusion of the religious liberty language will secure the remaining six GOP votes necessary for passage. Romney told TIME he is “studying” proposed new language that has not been publicly released. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who LGBTQ advocates have been lobbying to support the bill, wouldn’t comment on proposed changes to the texts. Senators Rick Scott of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa also declined to comment until they’d read the new language.
It could significantly change Senators’ political outlook if they move the voting to the after-midterm elections. In a Gallup poll released in 2021, 70% of American citizens support the same-sex marriage. That includes 83% Democrats and 55% Republicans. The LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign released a September 14 poll that found 64% support passing a bill to codify the right of same-sex marital. The House is home to many Republican lawmakers that supported the Respect for Marriage Act.
Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican Senator who may feel political pressure about the vote, is currently in the middle of a tight reelection race against Mandela Barnes. Over the summer, Johnson told reporters he saw “no reason to oppose” the Respect for Marriage Act. But on September 8 he announced he would not support the legislation “in its current state” due to concerns over religious liberties. On Thursday, Johnson repeated he felt the law needed “very strong protections for religious liberty” but said he had not reviewed the new language circulated by Baldwin’s camp.
“If the Democrats are serious about passage,” one of Johnson’s aides says, “they should delay it.”
Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, expressed dismay at the delaying of the vote in a Thursday statement. “The Respect for Marriage Act is an incredibly necessary, popular and bipartisan bill – and the lack of 10 Republican yes votes right now is extremely disappointing,” said Human Rights Campaign Interim President Joni Madison. “The Respect for Marriage Act must be brought to a vote at the earliest possible moment – in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson, it is clear there’s a timely, urgent need to declare that the days of debate around marriage equality are over.”
With reporting by Eric Cortellessa/Washington
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