Gays, Obama, And The 1996 Defense Of Marriage Act

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Yesterday's meeting at the White House between hundreds of gay and lesbian leaders and President Obama was history in the making, regardless of the debate over whether the president has fulfilled his promises on the issue or whether he's moved too slowly, etc.

Just compare what happened on Tuesday with what's happened in the past. The other day, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reminded us about the first time gay leaders were invited to the White House, in March 1977, where "they met a midlevel aide on a Saturday when the press and President Jimmy Carter were nowhere in sight."

Still, there remains a sense of unease in the gay community, as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is still the law, the Defense of Marriage Act is still on the books, and Obama still says he opposes same-sex marriage.

Of course, it's hard to support same-sex marriage while at the same time you're filing legal briefs on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a sense of momentum shifting in favor of same-sex marriage — though polls still show a majority of the electorate opposed to it. Earlier this month, New Hampshire became the sixth state to approve it — following Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont.

The issue is almost certainly going to be part of the 2010 campaign, especially in Iowa, where same-sex marriage became legal not by legislative action but by a state Supreme Court decision. Bob Vander Plaats, a former and future gubernatorial candidate, intends to run on it. "This will be a keystone issue without question," he was quoted as saying in a recent CQ Politics piece on Iowa gay marriage.

The issue may resonate elsewhere as well.

Nationally, both sides cite the Senate vote on the Defense of Marriage Act — the 1996 vote that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman — as the major impediment to a national legalization of gay marriage. That may be so, and no doubt was part of the conversation inside the White House yesterday.

But it's interesting to look at that 1996 vote — a resounding 85-14 tally and subsequently signed by President Clinton — to see who voted which way, especially on the Democratic side.

As to be expected, every Republican voted for it. But more Democrats voted for it (32) than opposed it (14). Here's how Senate Democrats voted on Sept. 10, 1996 (senators in bold/italics are still serving). Some of the votes may surprise you:

FOR (32): Baucus (MT), Biden (DE), Bingaman (NM), Bradley (NJ), Breaux (LA), Bryan (NV), Bumpers (AR), Byrd (WV), Conrad (ND), Daschle (SD), Dodd (CT), Dorgan (ND), Exon (NE), Ford (KY), Glenn (OH), Graham (FL), Harkin (IA), Heflin (AL), Hollings (SC), Johnston (LA), Kohl (WI), Lautenberg (NJ), Leahy (VT), Levin (MI), Lieberman (CT), Mikulski (MD), Murray (WA), Nunn (GA), Reid (NV), Rockefeller (WV), Sarbanes (MD), Wellstone (MN).

AGAINST (14): Akaka (HI), Boxer (CA), Feingold (WI), Feinstein (CA), Inouye (HI), Kennedy (MA), Kerrey (NE), Kerry (MA), Moseley-Braun (IL), Moynihan (NY), Pell (RI), Robb (VA), Simon (IL), Wyden (OR).

Pennsylvania's Specter, now a Democrat but then a Republican, voted for it. Lieberman is now an independent. Pryor of Arkansas was absent for the vote.

The House vote, by the way, was 342-67.

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