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Why Republican opposition to the Respect for Marriage Act matters

It's a good thing that 12 Senate Republicans broke ranks and advanced the Respect for Marriage Act. It’s a bad thing that the total was only 12.


When Senate Democratic leaders scheduled a procedural vote this week on the Respect for Marriage Act, which would codify same-sex marriage in federal law and protect marriage equality from Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices, it wasn’t altogether clear whether it’d have the votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

That question received an unambiguous answer on Wednesday: 12 Senate Republicans sided with the Democratic majority to advance the civil rights legislation.

Whether this was encouraging or discouraging was a matter of perspective. On the one hand, for the measure’s progressive proponents, it was good to see a dozen GOP senators break partisan ranks and do the right thing. On the other hand, there are 50 Senate Republicans — and while one missed the vote, 37 of them voted against protecting marriage equality.

In other words, roughly three-quarters of the Senate GOP conference balked, despite polling showing broad public support for the underlying principle.

By way of an explanation, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said the legislation included religious liberty protections, though he found them “woefully insufficient.” Interestingly enough, not only did 12 of his GOP colleagues disagree — including fellow Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also endorsed the bill.

So what’s going on here? A Washington Post offered an explanation by referencing data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) report conducted by Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

Extremely conservative strong Republicans make up only a small part of the country, of course — about 10 percent, according to the ANES. But those Republicans are more likely to vote in party primaries than less conservative Republicans. Even among Republican-leaning independents, those who identify as more conservative are more likely to say they vote in primaries — and more likely to oppose same-sex marriage.

In other words, Republicans are aware of the national polling and the support for marriage equality among the American mainstream, but on Capitol Hill, most of the party doesn’t much care what the mainstream thinks. What matters is what the GOP base believes, and for now, rank-and-file Republican voters still aren’t on board with marriage equality.

To be sure, this makes sense, but I’d go a step further: This isn’t just an example of a party being sensitive to the beliefs of social conservatives, it’s also an example of a party made up of elected officials who don’t believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

Take Sen. Marco Rubio, for example. The Florida Republican is a longtime opponent of marriage equality who’s talked about bringing back discriminatory anti-LGBTQ policies, even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

Rubio just won re-election by more than 16 points. He knows the Respect for Marriage Act is a bipartisan compromise. He knows it includes all kinds of built-in protections to protect religious liberty. He knows that it would simply codify the status quo in federal law. He even likely knew it’d advance whether he supported his party’s filibuster or not.

Did the Floridian oppose it anyway to satisfy the wishes of GOP voters? Maybe, but it seems more likely that Rubio just doesn’t want gay people to have the same marriage rights as straight people — and too many other Senate Republicans feel the same way.

As for the pending legislation, this week’s vote put the bill on a path to success, but a final floor vote is unlikely before Thanksgiving.