Senate Committee Likely to Pass DOMA Repeal

Sen. Leahy got emotional comparing the law to the past ban on interracial marriage.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to pass a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, next Thursday. In a committee session today, Democrats applauded the bill as a way to respect states' rights to define marriage as well as a way to provide equal protection under the law to legally married same-sex couples.

"One thing that distinguishes America from any other country is the inexorable march to equality," New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said during a committee session today, alluding to a quote by French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. "The Repeal of DOMA will be a large step in that direction. It will happen. It will happen. Let's just hope it happens sooner rather than later."

[Read: House Could Spend $1.5M Defending Marriage Act.]

The Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for all federal purposes, regardless of state laws. The repeal bill, called the Respect for Marriage Act, would recognize same-sex marriages conducted in states where such unions are legal. It is likely to pass committee next week since all of the Democrats on the committee are listed as cosponsors to the bill. But it would still need to pass the full Senate as well as the Republican-majority House, which seems unlikely.

The Obama administration announced in February it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, though House Republicans have hired outside lawyers to do so, expressing frustration over what they say is the Justice Department shirking its constitutional duty to uphold the nation's laws.

None of the committee's Republicans commented on the repeal bill today, though they may do so next Thursday when committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, brings it for a vote.

Critics of the repeal bill complain that it would undermine the traditional view of marriage as solely between a man and a woman and flies in the face of the 30 states that have voted to include the traditional definition in their constitutions.

But the bill's primary sponsor, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, disagrees. "Times have changed," she said, pointing out that since the bill passed 15 years ago, six states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage.

"DOMA, in my view, is clearly discriminatory," she added, listing some of the rights denied to same-sex couples as Social Security spousal benefits, protection from estate taxes when a spouse passes away, and the ability to file taxes jointly and claim certain deductions.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

"In my view, DOMA is a pernicious denial to one class of legally married couples of more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits that are provided to all other members of that class, legally married couples," she said. "I believe this is a clear violation of equal protection."

Leahy himself got emotional as he spoke about the issue. "Up until the [1967] case of Loving v. Virginia, it was against law for an African-American and a white to marry," Leahy paused and appeared to choke up for a minute, likely thinking of his daughter and son-in-law, a biracial couple. After a moment, he continued, "And I think the senator from New York knows how I feel about that," he said. "Thank goodness that was changed."