The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would extend benefits now reserved for the spouses of federal employees to the same-sex, domestic partners of such workers. The bill, H.R. 2517, would bestow on homosexual partners of federal employees such benefits as health insurance, retirement and disability benefits, group life insurance, and family and medical leave.
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent the legislation to the full House by approving it in a party-line vote, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 23-12 on the roll call.
GOP members of the panel charged the bill is an indirect attack on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars the federal government from recognizing "same-sex marriages" and gives states the option to refuse to recognize such unions from another state. They also said it would add an unknown fiscal burden to taxpayers and would promote discrimination against unmarried heterosexual couples. The legislation would cover only homosexual partners, not unmarried heterosexual ones.
Committee Democrats defended the measure as a remedy to discrimination against homosexual couples and a necessary aid in the federal government's recruitment of the best workers.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land criticized the proposal both before and after the committee's vote.
"Most Southern Baptists believe that the only relationship that should be defined by its sexual nature and should have special benefits accrued to it is heterosexual marriage," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Nov. 25. "Thus, we oppose granting domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples, as well as heterosexual couples who are living together outside of marriage. This bill discriminates against heterosexual couples living together outside of wedlock in that it only grants domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. We have made it clear we are opposed to both."
Prior to the committee action, Land wrote Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., the committee's lead minority member, to urge his opposition to the measure.
Under the bill, Land told Issa, "the federal government would in effect take a step toward implementing same-sex marriage nationwide." It "would also force taxpayers to fund relationships to which millions object based on deeply held religious convictions," Land said in the letter.
At the committee's Nov. 18 meeting to "mark up" the bill, Issa called the measure "an attempt to circumvent" DOMA, adding, "Supporters of the bill don't like the fact that Americans, from Maine to California, have voted time and time again to defend traditional marriage." The proposal is an effort "to put a stick in the eye" of Americans who have voted in 31 states to define marriage as between only a man and a woman, Issa said. No state has endorsed "same-sex marriage" in a ballot initiative.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R.-Ohio, charged the bill with attempting "kind of an end run in a round-about way of creating this new marriage-like status of domestic partnership."
Democrats denied the bill will impact marriage.
"Whatever one's view on this issue, the legislation does not affect or amend the Defense of Marriage Act," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D.-N.Y., the committee's chairman.
Issa and Jordan both offered amendments designed to protect marriage by specifying the bill does not affect DOMA. The slightly different versions lost, Issa's amendment in a 20-15 vote, with three Democrats joining the Republicans, and Jordan's proposal in a 22-12 roll call along party lines.
The Obama administration, which supports the bill, has not provided a cost estimate for extending the multiple benefits covered in the measure to the domestic partners of federal employees, Issa said in criticizing the proposal. "e are taking up a bill that casts aside all concerns about fiscal responsibility in order to bestow a costly new benefit on a select class of federal employees," he said.
The bill's cost for health benefits alone in the first year would be $60.4 million, University of Massachusetts-Amherst economics professor Lee Badgett told a House subcommittee in a July hearing.
The measure's vagueness is a problem on a number of fronts, Republicans charged. For instance, Issa said, "Nearly any two individuals of the same sex could qualify as 'domestic partners' under the bill as long as they are not direct relatives, meaning not family in the conventional sense."
Towns said, "Providing gay and lesbian federal workers with the same family benefits that their married co-workers receive will ensure that the federal government maintains its role as a model employer in the United States, and it will foster an inclusive workplace so that we can attract the best and brightest Americans to federal service."
According to testimony by Badgett to the subcommittee in July, employers that offer benefits to same-sex partners include 20 states; 250 cities, counties and other local government agencies; 83 percent of Fortune 100 firms, and nearly two-thirds of the Fortune 1000.
President Obama endorsed the bill in June when he signed a memorandum extending benefits to homosexual partners of federal employees to the extent possible without congressional action.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D.-Wis., an open lesbian, is the sponsor of the House bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I.-Conn., is the sponsor of a companion Senate bill, S. 1102. The House measure has 135 cosponsors, while the senate version has 24.
Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention's meeting in June approved a resolution that expressed opposition to a variety of federal policy proposals that would extend rights to homosexuals.
Former SBC President Frank Page testified against the legislation before the House subcommittee in July. Page was pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., at the time. He now is vice president of the North American Mission Board's evangelization group.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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