Senate Republicans are keeping their distance from a House-passed bill to protect same-sex marriage, even though polls show a majority of Republicans support it and the measure passed overwhelmingly in the lower chamber with 47 House GOP votes.
So far only three Senate Republicans say they will support the measure and a fourth, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), says she supports marriage equality generally but needs to look at the legislation more closely.
“I have long made known public my support for marriage equality,” she said, explaining that she hasn’t had a chance to review the bill closely.
The three Republicans who say they will back the measure are the bill’s sponsors, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), and Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), who told reporters he “probably will” vote for it.
There’s also a group of eight to 10 Republicans who are potential yeses.
But two GOP senators initially seen as possible supporters of the legislation, Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), said Wednesday they would not vote for it.
Cornyn dismissed the legislation as a political stunt by Democrats trying to divert attention from inflation, and Graham said he wants to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Cornyn noted that the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment protected the right of same-sex couples to marry and argued that’s unlikely to change.
“This is a contrived controversy in pursuit of a political narrative that somehow that decision by the Supreme Court is in jeopardy. I don’t believe it is, and this is an effort to try to stoke the fires of political activists and scare them with a narrative that I think is a false narrative,” Cornyn said.
Graham says he wants to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed individual states not to recognize marriages performed in other states until it was ruled unconstitutional in Obergefell.
“I’m going to support the Defense of Marriage Act,” he said when asked about the House-passed bill.
A key centrist, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has sided with Democrats on several high-profile votes this Congress, said the House-passed bill is unnecessary since same-sex marriages are already recognized under the law of the land.
“We all know what the law is and I don’t see the law changing, so it’s not something I’m giving consideration to at this stage,” he said, adding he would focus on the proposal “if it comes our way.”
Democrats are pointing to Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the right to an abortion, to argue the legislation is necessary. Thomas argued the court “should reconsider” its rulings protecting the rights to same-sex marriage and contraception.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he wanted to bring the House bill to the floor after the 267-157 vote in the lower chamber, which signaled the legislation had a chance to pass and would almost certainly make Republicans in the Senate uncomfortable. The House bill also includes protection for interracial marriages.
Democratic strategists say Republicans will hurt themselves politically, especially with moderate and independent voters, if they vote against or block the legislation.
Gallup’s annual values and beliefs poll published last month showed that 71 percent of Americans think marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid.
“A large majority of the American people support same-sex marriage and it would be counter to where people are” if Senate Republicans defeat the legislation, said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.). “It’s a continuing effort by Republicans to take away rights from individuals.”
Supporters of the legislation are hopeful that Romney can be persuaded to vote for it after all four Republican members in Utah’s House delegation did so Tuesday.
Other Senate Republicans said they are either open to the legislation or declined to state a position.
“I’m open to it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican Conference, who wants to review its details.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to be instructed. I don’t know what the text is going to say, but I will remain open to it,” she said.
Retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is considered another potential “yes” vote.
“I’m going to look at it,” he said.
Other Republicans viewed as possible supporters are Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Mike Rounds (S.D.).
Portman said views of gay marriage are shifting within the Senate Republican Conference as well as among voters nationwide.
“You look at the shifting sentiment about this issue throughout the country. I think this is an issue that many Americans regardless of political affiliation feel has been resolved,” he said.
“My own personal views on this haven’t changed from a several years ago when I said people ought to have the opportunity to marry who they want,” he said. “I think its time has come.”
Portman said he hasn’t done a whip count but pointed out that the Senate passed legislation in 2013 with 64 votes to protect LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace.
Portman spoke up in defense of a bill to recognize same-sex marriage at the federal level during a Senate Republican Steering Committee lunch Wednesday, where Republican senators discussed the issue.
Participants in the meeting said senators expressed opposing views but characterized the debate as polite.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill, said “it could” attract 10 Republican votes, enough to overcome a filibuster.
“I don’t think there’s a need to do this. The court made it very clear the precedent they were addressing in Dobbs didn’t affect any other precedents,” he said.