DOMA Decision Rankles Some Republican Lawmakers

The Defense of Marriage Act passed nearly two decades ago with overwhelming majorities in both members of Congress — a feat it could never accomplish today. With Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling, even defenders of the law seem to understand there is little they can realistically do to restore it.

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Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. More than 15 years later, current and former lawmakers - some of whom had voted for law - urged the Supreme Court to strike it down. Attitudes towards same-sex marriage continue to evolve on Capitol Hill.

But as we hear from NPR's Ailsa Chang, today's decisions were still too much too soon for many lawmakers.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: In the fall of 1996, a presidential election was looming, and so was the possibility that same-sex couples in Hawaii would soon be able to marry. The Defense of Marriage Act passed with a hefty bipartisan vote. In the Senate, the tally was 85-to-14. One of those 14 was Democrat Barbara Boxer of California.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: And I had the heaviest heart when it passed so overwhelmingly. And today, the arc of history bends towards justice.

CHANG: Since that day, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have lined up to announce their changes of heart about same-sex marriage. It almost became a fad around Capitol Hill after the Supreme Court took up the DOMA case.

But House Republicans had been steadily spending millions to defend DOMA ever since the Obama administration announced they'd no longer fight the fight. Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler of Missouri was one of the first lawmakers to lash out against today's decision.

REPRESENTATIVE VICKY HARTZLER: The Court's activist on the Defense of Marriage Act ignored the votes of a bipartisan majority of Congress. This is a dangerous precedent, which strips power away from Congress with respect to defining national marriage policy.

CHANG: Republican Tim Huelskamp of Kansas says he'll introduce a Federal Marriage Amendment to undo what the justices did today. He spoke outside the Supreme Court this morning.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM HEULSKAMP: With this decision, the Courts have allowed the desire of adults to trump the needs of children. Every child deserves a mommy and a daddy and with this decision, they undercut the needs of our children.

CHANG: But Republican leaders in both Houses suggested today that duking this one out on the federal level would be a bad use of time. They say leave it up to the states. Here's John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican in the Senate.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN CORNYN: Like it or not, the Supreme Court in our system is the final word on constitutional matters. Somebody said at one point, said the Supreme Court is not final because it's always right, it's right because it's final.

CHANG: And that finality today resolved what was a prickly issue in the immigration debate, a proposal allowing married, same-sex couples to sponsor foreign partners. Patrick Leahy of Vermont wanted that provision badly and says the decision makes his struggle moot - happily so.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: With the Supreme Court decision today, it appears that the anti-discrimination principle that I've long-advocated will apply to our immigration laws and to bi-national couples, and their families can now be united under the law.

CHANG: And because of today's decision, Leahy says he won't be seeking a floor vote on his amendment.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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