WASHINGTON— As the news of the Supreme Court’s rulings on marriage equality broke Wednesday morning, House Republicans were just ending their weekly conference meeting. Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican from Michigan who believes government should not be involved in anyone’s marriage, stood up to urge fellow members to not sound hateful when discussing the rulings.
“Marriage is a private institution that government should not define. To me and millions of Americans, marriage is also a religious sacrament that needs no government approval,” Amash wrote on Facebook. “As a conservative, I will continue to push for less government interference in our personal and economic affairs.”
Amash’s view — seen in his remarks in conference, a characterization of which was confirmed by his spokesman, and his statement on Facebook — was one of many differing opinions that emerged from Congressional Republicans on Wednesday. One thing is clear: Gone is the GOP that was ideologically unified against gay marriage — a view that had long been a driving force in the party.
There were those who want to keep fighting for marriage to be defined as between one man and one woman, a very small minority who cheered on the decision, and those who would just really rather not talk about it.
Only three Republican Senators and two House Republicans have said they support marriage equality, but the group of conservative members ready to push for a congressional response — like a federal marriage amendment — was small in comparison to the group of Republicans who were just as ready to move on.
“What we’d really rather focus on are the jobs issues, the energy issues,” West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said. “You’ll have some folks that want to talk about it, but we need to focus on what’s important to the American people and I think that’s where the focus will stay.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he has always felt marriage was between a man and a woman, and he found the ruling confusing but ultimately he respected the court’s decision.
“I don’t know you can harmonize each state going their own way vs. federal benefits, I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said. “In my view elected officials should be defining marriage, not judges, but the court has ruled and I respect the court.”
Richard Hanna, R-NY, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., were the two lone House Republicans to celebrate the court’s ruling.
“Today’s rulings are a historic victory towards marriage equality,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “The Supreme Court made the right decision by striking down DOMA.”
The response from a cadre of social conservatives was to hold a dispirited press conference to denounce the decision. Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp argued earlier in the day that House leadership should hold a vote on a federal marriage amendment, and would file one himself later the week. “That has not been voted on since 2006. I think with this confusing schizophrenic decision, that’s the most logical response,” he said.
The divisions within the party — between focused social conservatives and the rest of the rank and file — have caused major headaches for leadership. And as public opinion has turned sharply in favor of marriage equality, it’s unlikely Republican leaders will want to bring up the issue again.
House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement saying he was “disappointed” in the decision but there was no talk of congressional action. Rather he said the debate would “continue in the public square.”
“For all practical purposes, the combined rulings just about spell the sunset for the issue of marriage in national Republican politics,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former longtime Senate aide who signed onto an amicus brief in the Proposition 8 case. “Bottom line: in less than a decade, opposition to gay marriage has transformed from a marginal political winner for Republicans (see Ohio 2004) to a liability with swing voters in a decreasing number of competitive states.”
Asked if the ruling would take the issue of gay marriage off the table in elections, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who recently came out in favor of marriage equality, said he was “honestly not thinking about the political consequences” of the ruling on his party.
“I support repeal of section three of DOMA. I’d prefer to have done it through the legislative process. And I think it should be left up to the states. But I think the result, which is putting it back to the states is the right way to go.”
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