WASHINGTON — Democrats left Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy standing alone Tuesday night in support of gay and lesbian couples, a stark departure from Democrats' public face in support of marriage equality in recent months.
A little more than a month ago, marriage equality was the talk of Capitol Hill. Politicians, in Chief Justice John Roberts' words, were "falling over themselves" to support same-sex couples' marriage rights.
The current limits to that support were made apparent by 7 p.m. Tuesday, when Leahy withdrew his amendment to the pending immigration bill that would have allowed married same-sex couples to be treated the same as married opposite-sex couples for immigration purposes.
Leahy introduced the bill just a half-hour earlier, but then, as Immigration Equality executive director Rachel Tiven told BuzzFeed, "I was shocked — and I suspect he was too — that not a single member of that committee joined him in saying, 'These are immigrant families, too. I care about these families.'"
Leahy received expected opposition from Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake to the provision, but the introduction also was opposed by four Democratic senators — Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer and Al Franken.
Although they all reiterated support for marriage equality and the substance of Leahy's amendment, all said they were opposing the amendment because they believed Republicans' protestations that its inclusion would kill the bill.
"If we make the effort to make [the protections] part of this bill, they will walk away," Schumer said. "They've said it publicly. They've told me privately. I believe them."
Feinstein noted her sponsorship of the bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but then explained her opposition to the amendment, saying, "I don't want to lose Sen. Graham's vote. Because Sen. Graham's vote represents and can be used for the rational for dozens of other votes who will not then vote for the immigration bill."
Likewise, Durbin said to Leahy, "I believe, in my heart of hearts, that what you're doing is the right and just thing, but I believe this is the wrong moment, and this is the wrong bill."
Even after Leahy withdrew the amendment, other Democrats on the committee expressed understanding about the decision not to include same-sex couples' protections in the bill.
After the committee sent the full immigration bill to the floor on a 13-5 vote, Tiven, who attended the committee session, she was incredulous at what had just happened.
"I think that the scapegoating of LGBT people as the 'bridge too far' for this bill — unchallenged by Democrats — and that Democrats leaned so hard on Sen. Leahy not to offer the amendment and then deserted him when he put it out on the table is shameful," she said.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin took aim primarily at Republican opposition in a statement, saying that "it is deplorable that a small number of Senators have been able to stand in the way of progress for lesbian and gay couples torn apart by discriminatory laws" and calling out Senators Graham, Flake, John McCain and Marco Rubio for "threaten[ing] to derail the entire immigration bill to appease a small but vocal group of anti-gay social conservatives."
Even Griffin, however, noted, "We are extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote on the measure that remains popular with the American people."
Unsurprisingly, the activist group Get Equal — best known for organizing protests at the White House during the debate over "don't ask, don't tell" repeal — was more harsh in its assessment.
"Today it became clear that our so-called 'friends' don't have the courage or the spine to stand up for what's right, and are content to buy into the false choice that Republicans created — holding a sorely-needed immigration bill hostage in order to cement inequality into law," Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, the group's co-director said in a statement.
Even when acknowledging the Republican opposition, Tiven focused on the Democrats.
"There is plenty of shame for both parties, but, really, to hear what Sen. Durbin, Sen. Franken had to say — the disregard for LGBT immigrant families — was startling," she said. "And the silence from quite a few others, including people who have spoken beautifully in the past, so clearly someone wanted them to be quiet."
President Obama — whose administration was reported by the Associated Press earlier Tuesday to have told Leahy "it would be best" not to offer the amendment in committee — provided no mention of Leahy's decision in a statement about the committee's vote.
The closest Obama came to mentioning the decision not to include same-sex couples was a note that "[n]one of the Committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I."
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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