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Obama Shift Thrusts DOMA Bill Into Spotlight

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
The House was lining up a vote on an amendment by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (right) to the Justice Department’s spending bill on the same day that President Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage on national television.

As President Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage Wednesday, the House prepared to vote on language barring the Department of Justice from arguing against the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a moment of political serendipity, the House was lining up a vote on an amendment by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) to the Justice Department’s spending bill on the same day Obama endorsed gay marriage on national television.

Facing increasing pressure from gay civil rights organizations, Attorney General Eric Holder has begun intervening in DOMA cases in California and other states, arguing the law is not constitutional. That decision has angered conservatives.

According to Huelskamp, that decision, along with Vice President Joseph Biden’s endorsement of gay marriage on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, prompted his decision to offer the amendment.

“The most immediate reason was the comments of the vice president of the United States. Stating his position is fine, but you tie that together with the issues with the lawsuit in California in which, essentially, the attorney general walked away from DOMA and said, ‘I’m not going to defend that,’” Huelskamp said.

“You can’t pick and choose as attorney general or administration which laws you want to enforce,” he added.

David Stacy, deputy legislative director for Human Rights Campaign, slammed Huelskamp’s amendment.

“This amendment is a mean-spirited and unnecessary attempt to punish the Justice Department for a decision that some Members of Congress disagree with,” Stacy said.

“It is unfortunate that House Republicans have decided to play political games, once again with the lives of loving, committed gay and lesbian couples in an attempt to draw attention away from the
1.5 million taxpayer dollars being wasted by the House to defend a discriminatory and patently unconstitutional law,” he added.

But Huelskamp defended his amendment, arguing that it is a matter of constitutional authority as well as something that voters in states across the country have endorsed.

“It’s a popular issue. Every state that has put it on the ballot, it’s passed 32 states in a row. But it really is a constitutional issue,” Huelskamp said. “I know I’m biased. My background is I wrote the Kansas marriage amendment. ... I’m a strong supporter of this, and the people expect politicians to do their will.”

Rep. Steve King agreed, arguing that the DOMA situation is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration, and Holder in particular, to not follow laws it does not support.

“The public doesn’t have a lot of patience for an executive branch ... that doesn’t follow the law,” the Iowa Republican argued.

Obama’s announcement could also bolster opponents such as Huelskamp. Republicans in the House had hoped to avoid engaging in social issues over the next several weeks in order to focus on economic issues. But Obama’s decision to endorse gay marriage has put the issue front and center on the national stage.

Meanwhile, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on Wednesday sought to block Speaker John Boehner’s efforts to intervene in a DOMA case involving gay and lesbian members of the armed forces.

Last week, the Ohio Republican directed the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to intervene in McLaughlin v. U.S., which challenges restrictions on benefits for gay and lesbian couples.

In a release, SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said, “The Obama Administration has wisely decided not to defend these unconstitutional and discriminatory laws that hurt military families, and Speaker Boehner is attempting to appoint himself to a role that is expressly reserved to the executive branch of our government.”

Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck dismissed SLDN’s complaint, noting that the Republican leader followed the proper procedures in directing the intervention.

“It was determined through consultations with each office — the process used to make such decisions regularly under then-Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] — that a majority of the BLAG believes the constitutionality of this statute, which the attorney general described as ‘identical in material respect to the language of Section 3 of DOMA,’ should be determined by the judicial branch, not through a unilateral decree of the president,” Buck said.

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