SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The U.S. Supreme Court next week hears oral arguments in two cases addressing same-sex marriage. One involves California's Proposition 8, which bans such marriages in that state. The other challenges the constitutionality of what's called the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. That's the 1996 law that defines marriage, for the federal government, as being only between a man and a woman. More than 4 in 5 members of Congress voted for that law.
But as NPR's David Welna reports, some who did are having second thoughts.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The soul-searching over DOMA went viral last week after Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, a social conservative and original co-sponsor that bill, sought out CNN to say something no one saw coming.
SENATOR ROB PORTMAN: I'm announcing today a change of heart on an issue that, you know, a lot of people feel strongly about. It has to do with gay couples' opportunity to marry.
WELNA: Portman said he'd decided to oppose DOMA and support same-sex marriage, two years after learning his college-age son was gay.
Then this week, former Democratic senator, secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton - whose husband Bill signed DOMA into law, but now wants it overturned - did her own about-face. Without actually mentioning DOMA, Clinton spoke on a gay rights advocacy group's website, making it clear she no longer opposed same-sex couples getting married.
HILLARY CLINTON: They are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage. That's why I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples.
WELNA: That shift aligns Clinton not only with President Obama, who now backs gay marriage, but also with every one of the 15 sitting Senate Democrats who voted for DOMA in 1996 and now oppose it. One is Patty Murray of Washington state.
SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: My state voted and I voted with them to allow marriages between gay and lesbian couples. I'm very proud of my state.
WELNA: Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, says personal experiences changed his mind.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: I think about my colleague, Senator Portman and his family situation. Mine is not that. But it certainly reflects a lot of friends that I've become close to over the years, who are now in committed relationships; good people, some raising children. And I just felt at the end of the day, that this really is the civil rights question of our time.
WELNA: But of the Senate's 14 sitting Republicans who also voted for DOMA, only Portman no longer supports it. Arizona's John McCain, whose wife and daughter have campaigned for DOMA's repeal, still backs the law.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I have conversations with my children all the time on this issue, and many other people. And I respect Senator Portman's viewpoint.
WELNA: But you've not changed your mind.
WELNA: Ten Republican senators who voted for DOMA signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the law. The lead author is Utah's Orrin Hatch. He insists he's not so far apart from Rob Portman.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Look, both of us believe that we should not discriminate against anybody. But where we do part is that I believe in the traditional definition of marriage that has existed for, some estimate, 6,000 years.
WELNA: At least one Republican who voted in the Senate for DOMA has changed her mind.
SENATOR NANCY KASSEBAUM: I certainly would vote to end it now. I think the time has come.
WELNA: Nancy Kassebaum was a Kansas GOP senator when she voted for DOMA. It was her last year in the Senate, a time when no states recognized same-sex marriage. Nine states do now, as well as the District of Columbia. Kassebaum says it's time the federal government's laws acknowledge that reality, as well as her fellow Republicans.
KASSEBAUM: And I'm sure people could say, Well, yeah, right - she could say that, she isn't there. But I think it's personally the way I would feel. And personally, I would feel it shouldn't be necessarily a Democrat issue or a Republican issue.
WELNA: Indeed, Portman says he described his decision to oppose DOMA as personal when he talked about it at a lunch this week with Senate GOP colleagues.
PORTMAN: I thanked them because I've had a number of people come up to me and express, you know, personal support for me and my family, and that's what I talked about.
WELNA: Do you think you're going to end up being the lone Republican who reverses course on this?
PORTMAN: You know, I really don't know. I didn't do this for political reasons, as you know, and I haven't really thought through the partisan politics of it.
WELNA: And yet, the strong bipartisan support DOMA once had is clearly gone. What backing it still has comes almost exclusively from the Republican side of the aisle.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.