Obama Action on Gay Partner Benefits Disappoints Supporters

Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:00pm

President Barack Obama on Wednesday will sign a presidential memorandum extending certain benefits — but not health care benefits — to same-sex partners of federal employees.

The move is already disappointing some gay rights supporters who have grown frustrated with Obama’s inaction on their priority issues, such as a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell— policy for gays in the military.

Obama was scheduled to sign the presidential memorandum at 5:45 p.m. in the Oval Office. It will extend different benefits to two categories of federal employees: civil service and foreign service employees.

For civil service employees, domestic partners can now be added to the employee’s long-term care insurance program. Employees will also be able to use sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children.

For foreign service employees, domestic partners will be able to use medical facilities at posts abroad and will be factored into medical evacuations from posts abroad. Domestic partners will also now be included in family size for housing allocations.

The memorandum also calls on the heads of all executive branch departments and agencies to identify other benefits they administer that could be extended to same-sex partners.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said his office and the Secretary of State have been working for months to identify benefits that can be extended to same-sex partners of federal employees within the confines of existing laws. The Defense of Marriage Act currently prohibits many benefits from going to same-sex partners of federal employees.

“This is long overdue progress in the journey to equality,— said Berry, who is the highest-ranking openly gay member of the Obama administration.

But the handful of openly gay Members of Congress had a tepid response to the president’s action, particularly because the benefit extension doesn’t include health insurance or retirement benefits.

“It might include a few minor things, which is certainly nice, but it’s a far cry from anything close to equal treatment,— Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) added, “I’m looking for a strong statement tonight.—

Baldwin said she is pleased that Obama will be endorsing her bill on domestic partner benefits, but she is “absolutely— going to be looking for signs that Obama is not backing down in his vow to address bigger issues for the gay community.

“I’d like to see him reaffirm his commitment on repealing— the Defense of Marriage Act, Baldwin said.

By contrast, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he is encouraged by Obama’s action since “it’s as much as he can do legally.—

Frank took a shot at gay rights activists for complaining about Obama’s inaction on issues when it is the responsibility of Congress to move on them. In the case of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, for example, Frank said he thinks the House has the votes to repeal the policy, but he is less sure about the Senate.

“I would hope some of these people would call their Senators. Most of them don’t do that. They’d rather complain about the president than help us lobby,— Frank said.

Berry said Obama will comment on the fact that it is up to Congress to take action on issues like extending health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. He said Obama is prepared to take on any major issues facing the gay community as soon as Congress is ready.

“The timeline is when you get 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate,— Berry said. Today’s action “is a first step, not a final step.—