Dems Reassure Gay Leaders

Senators pledge to kill anti-gay amendment proposals in any form

At a May 13 meeting between Democratic senators and gay leaders in Washington, D.C., Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (Cal.), and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) affirmed the Senate Democratic leadership’s commitment to blocking any version of a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (N.D.) promised in July 2003 to oppose the current version of the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), but recent developments raised concerns that Senate Democrats might not be absolutely committed to blocking a modified version of the measure.

David Sandretti, Boxer’s communication’s director, affirmed the Calfornia senator’s opposition to any version of the amendment, but said that Boxer emphasized that “we can’t rely on this as a done deal. The Republican leadership is bent on bringing this up this year and we will have to fight it on the floor.”

Sandretti described the senator as an active leader in the fight against the amendment, “reaching out to Republicans, sounding out our support, seeing if there are procedural ways to keep it from happening, and talking on a one-on-one basis with other senators, lobbying against it. The problem is that the stakes are high because the Republican leadership sees this as a winning wedge issue.”

Stu Loesser, Schumer’s communications director, issued a comment from the senator, in which Schumer said, “I’m going to fight this amendment tooth and nail. The Constitution shouldn’t be used to constrict rights.”

Loesser confirmed that Shumer would oppose any version of the FMA, but stated that the senator spoke for himself and not on behalf of Daschle.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while not specifically addressing the question of modifying the FMA, issued a statement reaffirming her general commitment to fighting the amendment, saying that she does “not support amending the Constitution to address this issue. The Constitution is a sacred document and should not be used as a tool to divide the American people.”

According to Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) leaders did not get an opportunity to have Clinton clarify her position at the meeting because she and several colleagues left early to attend a hearing on the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal held by the Armed Services Committee.

Stabenow’s office did not respond to follow-up queries by press time.

Last Thursday’s meeting was organized by the Senate Steering Committee, chaired by Clinton, who schedules such sessions every two to four weeks at which Democratic senators meet with various interest groups. The May 13 meeting featured leaders from about 20 of the major LGBT organizations as well as eight senators and two representatives.

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who had in recent weeks lobbied Democratic senators to work against the FMA, expressed elation by what he called “incredibly positive reassurances from the Senate minority on Thursday that they will kill any version of the FMA.”

In a separate interview, Lambda’s Cathcart said that while the senators “did not say that they were speaking on behalf of Daschle, they did make it clear that the numbers were there and that this amendment was not going to leave the Senate. They didn’t hedge and there was no wiggle room.”

Foreman added, “It was extremely heartening and welcome and put a lot of our fears at rest. I know Sen. Schumer and I know the records of Sens. Boxer and Stabenow on our issues, and these people are rock solid. If they said it, you can take the words of these senators to the bank.”

Political experts have predicted that the current form of the FMA does not have the support of anything close to the 67 senators it would need in order to pass constitutional muster. However, Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national LGBT lobby, has said that a variation of the FMA with softened language that makes clear that civil unions and domestic partnerships would not be banned might have a chance of passing, especially if Pres. George W. Bush lobbies heavily for its passage. As a result of these new concerns, groups such as HRC have launched urgent fund-raising and advocacy appeals. Some critics maintain that these groups are raising unnecessary alarms about the FMA’s passage and that it was not in the community’s strategic interest to narrowly focus on that fight.

Considering what he interpreted as reliable reassurance from the senators, Foreman sees an opportunity to avoid diverting scarce community resources to lobbying against the FMA. Instead, he calls for a focus on fighting state constitutional amendments that would make same-sex marriages illegal, since these have a much higher chance of passing.

“For us, the only point of trying to press for this commitment,” said Foreman, “was to turn as much of the community’s attention as possible to the state amendments.”

Six states will have anti-same-sex marriage constitutional initiatives on the ballot this November, and in five other states support is accruing for such measures.

“Because state constitutional amendments are extremely difficult for federal courts to overturn,” said Foreman, “[these state amendments] raise the bar that much higher for the federal courts.”

Cathcart affirmed the urgency of the anti-gay state ballot initiatives, but is not convinced that we can “ignore Congress and focus on the states. Lambda’s focus is not legislative, so I have to defer to those who spend more time in D.C., but I wonder if we can really put [the FMA] to rest. Will this be put to rest as long as we maintain pressure on Congress, or only until we stop [maintaining pressure]?”

Cathcart, like Foreman, was heartened by “how strong and unequivocal the statements at the Capitol meeting were. It lifted a worry that has been weighing heavily on a lot of people about what would happen if we couldn’t hold the line [against the FMA], and thus freed up a lot of energy to each work on our other ongoing projects.”

We also publish:

More from Around NYC