Openly-Gay Congresswoman Proposes New Marriage Act

Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is known for her liberal position on issues like the health care and federal spending. The Democrat is the only openly gay woman serving in Congress and is co-sponsoring legislation that would repeal the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage. In our weekly Political Chat, host Michel Martin speaks with Representative Baldwin about the recently introduced Respect for Marriage Act and gets her take on the developments in Libya and the future of nuclear energy in the U.S.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, many people give up something for Lent: dessert, wine, smoking, even Facebook or Twitter. We talked to a prominent minister who is asking his congregation not what they're willing to give up, but what they are willing to do. We'll have that conversation a little bit later in the program.

But, first, our weekly political chat: the latest in our ongoing series of conversations with lawmakers who are involved in some of the most important debates on Capitol Hill.

Last week we heard from Iowa Republican Steve King. Today, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin. She's represented Wisconsin's 2nd District in Congress since 1999. She's best known for her strong progressive stance on issues like access to health care, worker's rights and gay rights.

She is one of only four openly gay members of Congress and the only openly gay woman. And Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin joins us now from Wisconsin public radio station WHA in Madison, Wisconsin. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative TAMMY BALDWIN (Democrat, Wisconsin): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, obviously we want to talk about some legislation that you are specifically, directly involved in. But there are so many stories in the headlines that I feel I must ask you about. And, first, I want to start with the U.N. Security Council vote on a no-fly zone over Libya. Many people are saying, you know, how can the U.S. not stand with people trying to end the rule of a dictator who is mercilessly killing his own people?

On the other hand, many people say the U.S. is fighting two wars, faces a huge budget deficit and can't afford to get into another military confrontation, so I'd like to ask you what you see as the U.S. role, if any, in this situation.

Rep. BALDWIN: Well, certainly I feel the same conflict that you described in the setup to the question. It is hard to look the other way when a dictator is being so cruel and violent with his own people. And yet we are in two wars, both of which I firmly believe need to come to an end. And the prospect of being involved, leading a third war, is unfathomable to me.

The fact that the U.N. took action, I think, is very helpful because other countries can take the lead in enforcing a no-fly zone and we can play, perhaps, more of a supporting role. But the thing that may be the most encouraging and I haven't had a chance yet to fully understand the reaction to the U.N. vote, but I do hear some encouraging signs that maybe a truce or a ceasefire will occur in Libya because of that action, without any follow-up military action being even necessary.

MARTIN: But you don't, at this point, support the U.S. troops - U.S. personnel in enforcing a no-fly zone.

Rep. BALDWIN: Well, I certainly think that the U.S. should be involved and part of an international response to this. I don't think we should ignore the fact that we are leaders in calling for peace and calling for nonviolence in this world. But we cannot afford to be at war in a third theater with us in the lead.

MARTIN: And, finally, of course, not finally, but our next question, of course, sort of the international news, you're on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. And so I am interested in your reaction to the crisis in Japan and whether you think that that has any implications for U.S. energy policy.

Rep. BALDWIN: Well, there's no question that the earthquakes and the tsunami and the nuclear crisis that is occurring in Japan will have impact on the entire world's thinking about the future of nuclear energy. And, clearly, this week and I'm sure for the weeks to come, we will have intense scrutiny of what's happening in Japan and we'll want to learn everything we can from that as we go about focusing on two things. One is an aging fleet of nuclear power plants in the United States and questioning whether they could withstand natural disasters or manmade disasters, for that matter.

But, also, as we look at the question moving forward, I know that I, for one, believe that the challenge and threats posed by climate change are very real and that we do have to pivot from such reliance as we have today on fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases. Certainly I like to see us rely as much as we can on wind power and solar power.

But there are many, and myself included, that feel that nuclear power has to be on the table for a discussion for part of our future energy delivery system. And we really have to learn everything we can from the crisis in Japan to make wise decisions moving forward.

MARTIN: I'd like to move to some legislation that you are specifically involved in. On Wednesday you joined other members of the House in reintroducing the Respect for Marriage Act. If passed, it would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act that currently bans same-sex marriage in the United States. President Obama said that he thinks that DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, is unconstitutional. He's directed the Justice Department to stop defending it.

But House Speaker John Boehner says the House will intervene to defend DOMA. I'd like to ask you, do you really think that your measure stands a chance in this House, given the current politics?

Rep. BALDWIN: Well, I think the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA, is very important, even at this time where we do not have what I would characterize as a pro-equality majority in the House of Representatives. Introducing legislation, nonetheless, provides a vehicle for education for organizing support.

This bill was introduced yesterday with 108 co-sponsors. That surpasses last session's record and shows growing support and growing belief that the Defense of Marriage Act is both, unconstitutional, but un-American also. We don't know whether this battle will end by being resolved in the courts or how quickly it can be resolved by an affirmative vote of the House of Representatives. But this is one step along that important path.

MARTIN: How would you rate the president so far on LGBT issues?

Rep. BALDWIN: Well, he certainly achieved more than any other president prior to him in terms of advancing equality. At times when we had the composition of the Congress where we could actually pass things and send them to his desk, he was a helpful partner with regard to supporting the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd hate crimes act and repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy which prohibited people who were openly gay or lesbian from serving in our military forces.

But he also went beyond that in many respects. I would point a few. One is to name individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender to key offices in his administration. He's done more of those appointments than any president prior to that. But, also, using the power of the executive order, the presidential memorandum to address discrimination in federal government agencies.

A very key example of that is when he passed - or when he signed a presidential memorandum trying to allocate as many domestic partnership benefits to federal employees who had domestic partners to address a fundamental discrimination that exists against their families. In particular in areas, for example, when we have U.S. employees serving overseas in the State Department or USAID. There are great burdens if those individuals were in same-sex relationships. And he addressed many of those through executive order.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, let me interrupt, just because we do want to save some time to talk about the budget, which is of course an issue that engages, you know, everybody on the Hill. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our newsmaker today is Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin. She's with us to talk about important issues on Capitol Hill, including her efforts to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage.

And we also want to talk about the budget. And, of course, as you know, there's a showdown continuing on the budget; for the second time a continuing measure was approved. That means the government's going to be funded for three more weeks.

But is there an end in sight here? Or do you feel that it's just simply a matter of continuing these short-term measures for however long? Are there any signs that there's any sort of broader consensus emerging?

Rep. BALDWIN: You know, I fear that for the balance of this fiscal year, that we will see these short-term measures enacted one after another. I think that because...

MARTIN: Is that OK?

Rep. BALDWIN: Not with me. I think that it is resulting in a lack of thoughtfulness about the types of cuts that are being made because they are short-term measures. People don't put in the same thought that they would if they were looking at a long-term measure that would bring us through the end of the fiscal year.

I don't think there's any disagreement about belt-tightening at the national level. Certainly we know the states are struggling with budgets that are not in balance. But we - from my own perspective, I agree with the president that we really have to be smart about how we do this. We have to do it in a way that doesn't upset our economic recovery which is fragile at best.

We also have to, I think, honor the challenge that the president put out during his State of the Union address, which is to win the future, we must out-educate, out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world. And that means investment.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, there's only a minute left. But is that going to happen? Do you see any sign that the two sides are coming together on a point of view about this?

Rep. BALDWIN: Well, I don't and that's why I fear, at least for the balance of this fiscal year, that we will cobble it together through these short-term continuing resolutions. It appears that neither party has the appetite to bring this to a showdown by closing down the federal government. And therefore, these short-term continuing resolutions that I think lack thoughtfulness, lack a vision for the future, are ending up being what everyone resorts to. And it's unfortunate in my mind.

MARTIN: Tammy Baldwin is a member of Congress from Wisconsin. She represents Wisconsin's 2nd District. She's a Democrat. She was kind enough to join us from Wisconsin Public Radio, WHAA in Madison. Sorry, WHA, in Madison. Congresswoman Baldwin, thanks so much for joining us, we do hope we'll speak again.

Rep. BALDWIN: Thank you.

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