Some Congress Democrats Split With Obama on Gay Marriage

Senator Claire McCaskill
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Congressional Democrats who don’t agree with President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage now find they’re in an awkward spot.

Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana are among Democrats facing questions about their stand on the issue and whether they are swayed by the president’s support, which he announced May 9. McCaskill, Manchin and Tester are seeking re-election this year in Republican-leaning states. None back gay marriage.

“If they’re smart, they won’t change what they’ve been saying,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

Republicans have called attention to Obama’s announcement, which they say could pull votes away from Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning states.

“The president was looking at his own political prospects,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the chamber’s Republican leadership, said in an interview. “But if you’re somebody from a Midwestern state, a fairly conservative state, it’s probably not going to be helpful.”

While Obama’s endorsement was praised by gay rights advocacy groups and some Democrats in Congress, lawmakers from the party’s more moderate wing have mostly stayed silent or reiterated their opposition to gay marriage.

Manchin, a former West Virginia governor running for Senate re-election in a state Obama lost by 13 percentage points in 2008, remains opposed to same-sex marriage, a spokeswoman said.

‘Position Hasn’t Changed’

“His position hasn’t changed; he believes marriage is between one man and one woman,” Marni Goldberg said in an e-mail.

Tester “supports civil unions for committed same-sex couples, but in Montana, marriage is between one man and one woman,” spokeswoman Andrea Helling said yesterday.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain carried Montana by three percentage points in 2008.

McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard told the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader after Obama’s announcement that while his boss opposes discrimination against homosexuals, she thinks states should “take the lead in determining marriage equality.”

Missouri, which McCain won by a 3,600-vote margin in 2008, and Montana have state constitutional provisions defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.

‘Brick by Brick’

A potential Republican opponent for McCaskill, U.S. Representative Todd Akin, said yesterday in a statement that Obama’s support for same-sex marriages showed the president’s “unquenchable desire to tear down the traditional family unit brick by brick,” and reiterated his opposition to gay marriage.

The chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee said lawmakers and candidates who oppose gay marriage shouldn’t hide their position from voters.

“If you agree with the president, state your agreement; if you disagree with the president, state your disagreement,” New York Representative Steve Israel told reporters yesterday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “Be clear, let people know and move on.”

Obama’s support for gay marriage isn’t “that relevant” to individual House races, Israel said, adding that “each candidate has to run their own race.”

Defense of Marriage

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was noncommittal when asked if he would seek a vote on legislation to partly repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The Nevada Democrat, who has devoted floor time to Obama’s re-election campaign themes including a freeze on student loan interest rates and a minimum tax on millionaires, said he would “look at” the measure.

Following Obama’s announcement that he supports gay marriage, Reid said in a statement that while his “personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman,” the matter should be left to the states, which he described as “the proper place for this issue to be decided.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee in November approved, on a 10-8 party-line vote, legislation that would extend federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Eight senators seeking re-election this year are among the measure’s 31 Democratic co-sponsors.

Asked whether advancing such a measure before the election might cause political problems for some Democrats running for re-election, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said, “Yes, and I’m not assuming that every Senate Democrat agrees with the president.”

‘Own Positions’

“They’re all going to take their own positions on this,” said Durbin, who supports gay marriage.

Hours after Obama’s announcement, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, one of the chamber’s 15 Catholic Democrats, announced on Twitter that he supported gay marriage and that he would co-sponsor the partial-repeal measure.

Obama’s move drew criticism from religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Gay marriage advocates said they hope Obama’s support will prompt more members of Congress to publicly back gay marriage, said Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington organization that supports gay rights.

“The president speaking out very publicly can serve as a great example for members to be able to articulate their own journeys on this issue,” Cole-Schwartz said.

Gallup Poll

A Gallup poll conducted May 3-6 showed that 50 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, while 48 percent are opposed. The same survey in 2009 found that 57 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and 40 percent supported it. The current poll’s margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, said it was too soon to say how a candidate’s stance on gay marriage might affect his or her chances in November’s election.

“This is an issue that has been evolving and evolving rather quickly,” Schumer said, adding that anyone who would predict the political effect was “a lot smarter” than he.

Democratic candidates “are not going to get through a whole campaign, particularly now” that Obama has made his position known, “without being asked” about gay marriage, said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican.

‘One Big Wedge’

Still, Cole said, social issues such as gay marriage and abortion aren’t wedge issues in this election because “there is one big wedge, it’s called the economy, and the second big wedge is called the debt.”

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said his party’s disagreement with Obama over gay marriage won’t become a central campaign theme.

“The president can talk about it all he wants; I am going to stay focused on what the American people want us to stay focused on, and that’s jobs,” he told reporters yesterday.

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