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About that 'Congress passed DOMA by overwhelmingly bipartisan votes' canard

by Jeremy Hooper

We keep hearing social conservatives refer to the nearly fifteen-year-old Defense of Marriage Act vote as a bipartisan effort:

This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. Congress passed DOMA by overwhelmingly bi-partisan votes of 342-67 in the House and 85-14 in the Senate. It was then signed into law by liberal Democrat President Bill Clinton. [SOURCE: CWFA]

Which is true, in the sense that many Democrats of a less-informed, pre-Lawrence v. Texas, pre-marriage-equality-in-any-state era were convinced to join their GOP colleagues. But even then, check out how the opposition played out. These were the fourteen Senate "no" votes:

Screen Shot 2011-03-04 At 8.58.44 Am

See any R's next to names? That would be a nay.

With only 47 members, the Senate Democrats had almost no chance of beating back the GOP's 53 majority block, the likely reason for some Dems not sticking out their necks on a sure loss. That's not to excuse those who voted for it, by any stretch. But it is an acknowledgment of 1996's political reality.

Over in the House, this was the "nay" breakdown:


In that chamber, where Dems were also in the minority, there was exactly one Republican nay: Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, an out gay man. He was also retiring after that term.

And beyond just the vote breakdown, one also has to look at the Democrats who "yeaed" it and then consider where they are today. First and foremost: President Clinton, who's now on record against DOMA and in favor of its repeal. Then looking to the '96 Senate roll call: There are Democratic names like Biden and Chafee and Mikulski, all of whom would be sure to support equality in their respective roles today. There are similar names in the House. And there's an influx of since-elected senators and members of Congress who'd be unwavering "nos." Because again, we are talking about a vote taken in a very different time -- a time when even gay people weren't all that sure what this marriage equality thing was all about. We have grown.

So was the '96 DOMA vote bipartisan? Okay, sure, in some ways, yes. But it's completely disingenuous to ignore that the Democratic party was the only party standing against this unconstitutional measure, even then. It's even more deceptive to act as if the votes of a Helms and Gingrich era Congress would neatly transpose to the Reid/Boehner 112th. And on that latter point: Even though the GOP would surely still be leading the highly unprincipled charge to keep benign fairness at bay, we're fairly confident that House and Senate Republicans would do slightly better than their prior 277-1 partisanship.

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