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Why the Senate’s same-sex marriage vote is getting delayed

The hope is that more Republicans will vote for the bill after the midterms — when they’re under less political pressure.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) speaks to reporters during a vote in the US Capitol on September 8, 2022, in Washington, DC. 
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A Senate vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would codify federal protections for same-sex marriage, has now been delayed until after the midterm elections, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told reporters on Thursday.

That vote was originally expected to happen next week before lawmakers left for a break in October. Senators said that part of the reason for the delay was the release of new legislative text and the fact that lawmakers were still reviewing that language. Mostly, however, the bill was delayed for political reasons: Democrats need 10 GOP votes to pass legislation in the Senate, and an insufficient number of Republicans have signed on so far.

“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,” the Senate majority leader’s office said in a statement. “Leader Schumer will not give up and will hold the bipartisan group to their promise that the votes to pass this marriage equality legislation will be there after the election.”

The Republican votes are likely missing because many fear the political blowback they’d get if they took a position on the bill. Were the vote to happen before the election, GOP lawmakers who voted against the bill could face backlash from moderate voters and independents who’ve widely supported same-sex marriage, while those who voted for it risk pushback from the members of their base who are still against it.

Multiple lawmakers suggested to Vox that it’s likely the bill will pick up more Republican votes once the midterms are over, when senators up for reelection would be under less political pressure. While there is overwhelming public support for same-sex marriage, a socially conservative segment of the Republican base continues to oppose it.

“I think that’s a wise decision, they’ll get more votes,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), one of the top Republicans in the Senate conference, said of the delay. “I think ... a handful of [senators] will likely decide to be somewhere after the election that they wouldn’t have been with a vote that was purely … a political ploy.”

This is not the end for the bill

The legislation would be historic if passed, a prospect that lawmakers are still optimistic about. It would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, and guarantee recognition of same-sex marriages and interracial marriages under federal law.

These provisions are especially vital given concerns that protections for same-sex marriage could be in danger following the Dobbs v. Jackson decision ending the federal right to an abortion. Statements Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has made suggesting that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage, is one he’s interested in revisiting have made those fears especially pointed.

While a vote on the legislation is delayed, both Democrats and Republicans who are sponsoring the legislation are still bullish on its chances.

“We’re very confident the bill will pass, but we will need a little more time,” Baldwin, the lead Democrat backing the bill, told reporters.

Beyond political considerations, one issue holding up the bill is Republicans’ desire to include language making it clear the legislation wouldn’t infringe on people’s religious liberties. Baldwin noted that lawmakers were set to release text on Thursday of amended language that addressed those issues.

At this point, 10 Republican senators have yet to voice their support for the bill. Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Thom Tillis (R-NC) have firmly backed it, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has indicated openness to doing so. The group would still need to pick up several more Republican votes in order to hit the 60-vote threshold the bill would require to pass the Senate.

The lawmakers working on the legislation now have several more weeks to find that support — though there’s no guarantee, even once midterms are over, that they will.

“The leader has to make a strategic decision about what the best time is,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “My personal preference is to put everyone on the record before the November elections, but I understand the decisions that are made about when the prospects are best for passing the measure. I want a law, not just a bill.”

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