Gay Lobby Raises Amendment Alarm

The Human Rights Campaign forecasts Senate vote on marriage ban earlier than expected

The most prominent national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lobby in Washington, D.C., the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), has signaled that a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage has a viable chance of passage in the U.S. Senate. LGBT advocates, including the leader of another prominent national group, have met the announcement by HRC’s executive director, Cheryl Jacques, with some doubt.

“We see this as a very real threat,” said Jacques on May 4 to the representatives of roughly ten gay newspapers during a national teleconference call. Jacques said the constitutional amendment could come to a vote on the floor of the Senate as early as this summer. “The reality is very present,” said Jacques that amendment opponents could lose their battle to stop the initiative from going on to another vote in the House of Representatives. Jacques, and HRC’s chief political strategist, Winnie Stachelberg, urged that gay voters should call their representatives and senators and ask them to oppose the amendment.

Some other gay rights leaders are questioning why HRC is raising such an alarm at this time. Thus far, judicial subcommittees in both bodies of the Congress have held hearings, but unofficial tallies indicate that the amendment proposal lacks sufficient support for passage. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “Cynically you could say that they are pushing the panic button so that when they do defeat the amendment the job will have looked all the more difficult,” referring to Jacques’ statement. “I would hope that that’s not the case,” added Foreman.

The disagreement highlights the ongoing question as to how the gay community should be directing its political resources and money. While the HRC makes contributions to state organizations and supports local political efforts, after paying its operating costs, much of the organization’s more than $22 million annual budget is spent in Washington– where their main work is to lobby the Republican-controlled Congress against encroachments on gay rights. But with Republican majorities in place, HRC has been unable to initiate proactive legislation. For example, the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, a bill that would give gay couples the same immigration rights as married spouses, has languished in committee for three years.

Foreman said the gay community should be focusing its attention, and money, on state battles over equal rights and marriage. Foreman’s organization, the NGLTF, works mainly to support state and local organizations. Last year, for example, the NGLTF gave $50,000 to California’s gay rights lobby, Equality California. HRC gave $15,000. In California, where Democrats control the state legislature, Equality California has made significant advances, including a bill which gives domestic partners almost all the same rights as married spouses.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds passage by both house of Congress. In Tuesday’s conference call, Jacques said that HRC’s informal Senate count indicates that between 40 and 42 senators are opposed to the amendment as it is currently written, comfortably more than the 34 votes needed to defeat it. “But those are not lock-solid commitments,” said Jacques. “If you change some words around, like in Massachusetts, you pick up or drop votes.”

Many amendment opponents, like Stachelberg and Bob Kearney of California’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agree that the Republican majority will try to bring the amendment to a vote on the floor of the Senate sometime this summer—just in time for the Democratic National Convention on July 26—simply to stage a symbolic action even if the votes for passage are missing. Another reason for such a vote would be to force the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, into what Stachelberg said would be a tough vote.

Kerry has consistently opposed a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but in late February, after months of indecision, Kerry endorsed a constitutional ban in his home state of Massachusetts, stipulating that the legislation also provided for civil unions. A month later, the legislature passed a bill approving a proposed constitutional amendment that would reverse the state’s Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriages.

On the federal level, some have questioned if Senate Republicans would craft an amendment that also specifically allows for civil unions. Would that amendment get the needed votes on the floor of the Senate? Could they then force Kerry to make the distinction again? When asked, Foreman answered, “Too many what-ifs.” But the dynamic the Republicans face, should an earnest attempt at passage be afoot in the Senate, is that a provision for civil unions would likely siphon away votes on the far right from senators who would then rework a more stringent amendment, while losing centrist Democratic votes if civil union language is not included. Currently, the Senate has 51 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

Foreman was quick to compliment the HRC on what he calls the excellent work they have done before he made another point. Foreman said that LGBT leaders need to demand that Democratic legislators and candidates for elected office who get the support of the LGBT community guarantee their loyalty – and that LGBT lobbying groups then hold them accountable.

During the HRC’s conference call, one reporter asked just such a question, demanding why the HRC endorsed Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith, who has now offered some support to the federal constitutional marriage ban. Stachelberg countered that Smith has been non-committal. “Saying he might support is not a signal to us that he will,” she said.

A clear test of HRC’s political resolve will be whether the group endorses Kerry after his support of Massachusetts’ constitutional amendment. Stachelberg remained noncommittal. “We were very disappointed about Massachusetts,” said Stachelberg, “but our decision is going to be based on other factors.”

Gay Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat, said he is a supporter of the HRC, and its work, but faulted its approach to lobbying. He said the organization has taken what he calls a “corporate model” of advocacy. “If you’re steel or cotton or mass transit, you can lobby both sides of the aisle,” Frank said. HRC does engage in a bipartisan mission and has supported and donated money to Republican candidates who then voted against pro-LGBT legislation. According to Frank, that requires a reconfiguration in strategy. He said the organization should be using a civil rights model, and focusing on Democrats who will vote for them. “That doesn’t mean you never support Republicans, but civil rights, labor and gun control, they tend to be party issues,” Frank said.

We also publish:

More from Around NYC