The White House on Tuesday threw its backing behind a bill that would repeal a 15-year-old law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing on the legislation Wednesday. The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, a measure that makes same-sex couples ineligible for the many federal benefits that accrue to married, heterosexual couples.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated President Barack Obama's support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.
"This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples." Carney said.
Feinstein said she is under no illusion that Congress will act this year to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Still, she views the committee hearing as an important first step. She said more people are open to gay marriage than in 1996.
"I think eyes have opened. More and more people across this land know people who are gay, who want to have a lasting relationship, who look at marriage as an economic agreement as well as an emotional agreement," said Feinstein, one of 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act.
The hearing will give lawmakers the chance to hear firsthand from married, same-sex couples. They complain that the law generates several obstacles that they consider discriminatory. For example, gay couples who get married in New York, Iowa or any other state that recognizes same-sex marriage cannot file joint federal income taxes and claim certain deductions. Nor can they receive spousal benefits under Social Security or take unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons.
Feinstein's legislation has 27 co-sponsors, but no Republicans. With the GOP in control of the House, she understands the political realities of repealing the bill anytime soon.
"If we don't succeed this session, we will try again next session," she said. "Believe me, we will continue this effort until the battle is won."
Feinstein spoke at the National Press Club on Tuesday along with three same-sex couples and representatives of an advocacy group called the Courage Campaign. The couples spoke about the disadvantages they experience because of the Defense of Marriage Act. For example, Beth Coderre and Beth Vorro of Rhode Island have to purchase individual health insurance instead of as a family, costing them thousands of dollars extra each year.
""I think, as Rosa Parks might say, it's time to get up from the back of the bus and assume our seats among the rest of our fellow human beings," Coderre said.
The Defense of Marriage Act passed both chambers of Congress by overwhelming margins and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In February, the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the act in court cases. A couple of weeks later, House Speaker John Boehner announced that the Republican caucus would defend the law.