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Republicans used same-sex marriage as a wedge. Now it divides them

The White House is lit up in rainbow colors of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. A crowd is gathered In the foreground.
People gather in Lafayette Park on June 26, 2015, to witness the White House lighted in rainbow colors to mark the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Every so often, a heated political issue suddenly ceases to burn, disappearing so quickly that later generations have a hard time comprehending — or even recalling — how intensely their ancestors fought over it.

Prohibition stands as one prominent example. The drive to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages played a huge role in American public life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in January 1919.

Fourteen years later, with the passage of the 21st Amendment, the U.S. abruptly reversed course. With that, the great national debate essentially vanished, as the writer David Frum recently noted. The control of alcohol sales was largely relegated to obscure regulatory boards and occasional fights over neighborhood liquor stores.

We may be about to witness a similar end to the debate over marriage for same-sex couples — a topic that roiled American politics for a generation, leading to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that established equal marriage rights nationwide.

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A bill passed by the House this month would guarantee marriage equality, protecting current and future same-sex couples against the possibility of a reversal by the high court. The measure stands a good chance of Senate passage, although likely not until the fall. If that happens, it would ratify a growing public consensus on the topic.

Before that, however, the issue is creating what may be its final round of political turmoil — this time hitting Republican senators who find themselves stuck between a shrinking, but still significant, constituency of social conservatives and a rapid shift of opinion in the general public.

Three decades of political battles

Same-sex marriage emerged as a major political issue in the U.S. in the early 1990s, spurred in part by a decision of Hawaii’s Supreme Court that the state needed to show a compelling reason to block same-sex couples from legally marrying. Conservative politicians seized on the Hawaii ruling, warning that if one state legalized same-sex marriages, the Constitution would require all states to recognize them.

Democrats were already on the defensive over gay rights. Early in 1993, Republicans and conservative Democrats had teamed up to give newly elected President Clinton a defeat over his promise to allow LGBTQ individuals to serve openly in the armed forces. Administration officials were anxious to avoid another such fight.

When Republicans began pushing a bill that would allow states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages entered into in other states, Clinton acquiesced.

The measure, the Defense of Marriage Act, became law in 1996. At the time, Gallup found that just 27% of Americans believed same-sex couples should have equal marriage rights.

In subsequent years, even as the movement for marriage equality gained strength, Republicans continued to successfully use the issue as a wedge. In 2004, the year Massachusetts became the first state to grant full marriage equality, opponents of same-sex marriage put initiatives on the ballot in several states aimed at defining marriage as solely between opposite-sex couples. The drive was part of a successful effort to boost turnout of conservative voters as President George W. Bush ran for reelection.

How much difference the marriage issue made in 2004 remains a topic of debate — Republicans had several other factors going for them that year. But 2004 remains the only election since 1988 in which the Republican presidential candidate won a majority of the vote.

Even after the election of President Obama in 2008, as the movement for marriage equality continued to gain strength, Democrats remained nervous about backing it. That year, California voters passed Proposition 8, aimed at banning same-sex marriage, a reminder that even in a socially liberal state, public opinion was still not solidly in favor of marriage rights. (The ban was later overturned in court.)

In May 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden set off a brief mini-furor in Washington when he stepped ahead of the administration and said in an interview on “Meet the Press” that he was “absolutely comfortable” that same-sex couples are “entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” Obama endorsed equal marriage rights a few days later.

By then, half of Americans supported marriage equality, according to Gallup’s data, which show support growing by an average of 1% to 2% per year since the mid-1990s. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 issued its marriage equality decision, Obergefell vs. Hodges, support had grown to about 60%.

Since then, same-sex marriages have become routine. The Census Bureau last year estimated that 980,000 same-sex households exist in the U.S., roughly 1.5% of all households in the country, of whom about 58% were headed by married couples. The share of the public that supports equal marriage rights now surpasses 70%.

That growing public support gave many LGBTQ Americans a sense of security that was abruptly undermined by the Supreme Court’s ruling in late June that overturned Roe vs. Wade, the half-century-old decision that had guaranteed abortion rights across the country. Justice Clarence Thomas, the most aggressively conservative of the justices, wrote a separate opinion in the case in which he said that the justices, having disposed of abortion rights, “should reconsider all” of the previous rulings that upheld rights based on a broad concept of constitutionally protected privacy, specifically mentioning Obergefell.

No other justice joined Thomas — and some made clear they disagreed with him — but his words generated a wave of anxiety.

Democrats responded by bringing up a bill in the House that would effectively codify marriage equality nationwide. The bill would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and explicitly hold that each state must recognize marriages approved by other states, regardless of the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the married individuals. If it became law, it would eliminate the threat implied by Thomas’ opinion; marriage equality nationwide would no longer depend on an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.

When 47 Republicans in the House joined Democrats to back the bill, congressional leaders suddenly realized it might be able to pass the Senate, which would require getting 10 Republicans to join Democrats to shut down a possible filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York announced he planned to bring the bill to the Senate floor soon.

That move has put Senate Republicans in a tight spot. After years in which their party exploited the issue, it’s now dividing their ranks.

Only four states — South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas — lack clear majority support for marriage equality, according to state-by-state surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute. But among Republicans, support remains about 20 points lower nationwide than in the population as a whole, PRRI’s data show.

White, evangelical Protestants — a core constituency for Republicans — stand as one of the few large groups in the country that continues to reject equal rights for same-sex marriages, with only about one-third saying they support it.

Only 10 of the Senate’s 50 Republicans come from states in which support for same-sex marriage exceeds the national average, according to PRRI’s ranking, and nearly all of them represent states in which a majority of their party’s members continue to be opposed.

Coming up on a midterm election in which control of the Senate remains a tossup, the issue puts Republicans in a bind: They worry about further alienating moderate voters who are already upset about the reversal of Roe. At the same time, they don’t want to dampen the fervor of their conservative supporters.

Five Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have indicated they will support the bill in the Senate. A few others have publicly said they will oppose it. Most, however, have maintained an awkward silence, skedaddling from reporters who ask their position.

Johnson’s is the most surprising name on the list of supporters, but also the most instructive: He’s one of the Senate’s staunchest conservatives but faces a tough reelection campaign this year in a state where 72% of people, including 58% of Republicans, support marriage equality, according to surveys by Marquette University in Milwaukee.

His statement, essentially throwing in the towel on the issue, might soon represent the Republicans’ last word on the subject: In a statement, he said the Supreme Court isn’t likely to overturn Obergefell, so the proposed bill “is unnecessary.”

But, he added, “should it come before the Senate, I see no reason to oppose it.”

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The fight against inflation

— The Federal Reserve has carried out its most aggressive back-to-back interest rate increases since the early 1980s, announcing another hike of three-quarters of a percentage point and signaling more to come, Don Lee wrote. The rate increases seek to curb strong consumer demand and spending and slow the economy even amid signs that the U.S. may already have slipped into a recession.

— On Thursday, Lee reported, the government released the latest economic statistics, showing that the anti-inflation campaign appears to be succeeding in slowing the economy.

The latest from Washington

— Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said Wednesday they had reached a surprise agreement on an expansive plan to reduce healthcare and energy costs, cut down on carbon emissions, fight inflation and allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. As Jennifer Haberkorn reported, the agreement marked a breakthrough on a bill that Democrats have tried for months to agree on.

— But, as Haberkorn wrote, the deal has gotten criticism from some climate activists in part because the plan ties subsidies for renewable energy to a requirement that the government sign new leases for fossil fuel extraction off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

— A planned trip to Taiwan led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) became the focus of Biden’s call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday, Courtney Subramanian and Tracy Wilkinson reported. Biden used the 2½-hour call with Xi, his fifth with the Chinese leader since taking office, to try to manage the rancor over Pelosi’s planned visit, along with a list of tension points that have strained U.S.-China relations, including Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as economic competition, security and human rights.

— The House committee investigating the 2021 attack on the Capitol has so far presented a detailed narrative of efforts by former President Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election. But an influx of new witnesses and evidence shows the Jan. 6 panel has a lot left to say when televised hearings resume in September, Sarah Wire reported.

— After months of wavering, Congress approved a sweeping $280-billion plan to subsidize domestic semiconductor manufacturers and fund research that a bipartisan group of lawmakers hopes will shore up U.S. competitiveness, particularly against China, Haberkorn reported. The Senate approved the bill on Wednesday, 64-33. The House followed on Thursday, 243-187.

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The latest from California

— The recent spike in gasoline prices took the greatest financial toll on Black and Latino Californians, though more than half of all adults in the state reported suffering at least moderate economic hardship, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. As Phil Willon reported, the poll found that Californians living in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, where distant commutes are commonplace, also felt a far greater pinch from steep prices at the pump than did people living in the state’s densely populated urban landscapes, especially the San Francisco Bay Area.

— Mark Barabak visited one of the nation’s most hotly contested swing congressional districts — California’s 13th, which sprawls south from the outskirts of the Bay Area — to see how voters are responding to the Jan. 6 hearings. What he found were partisans firmly dug into their preexisting beliefs.

— One of the state’s senior drought managers, Max Gomberg, has quit the staff of the State Water Resources Control Board, saying Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s administration isn’t doing enough to pursue the transformational changes the state needs to cope with a hotter climate, Ian James reported. “We’re really, as a society at this point in time with climate change, in need of bigger, bolder action. And we’re not getting it,” Gomberg said in an interview. Newsom’s office rejected Gomberg’s criticisms.

— The Newsom administration put forward its proposal for a massive tunnel that would funnel excess water in rainy years away from the Sacramento Delta and send it south to cities in Southern California. As Susanne Rust reported, it’s the latest iteration of a tunnel plan that state officials have debated since the late Pat Brown was governor in the 1960s. Previous versions have all been rejected. If the latest one prevails, officials hope to begin construction in 2028.

— Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed Rep. Karen Bass in the Los Angeles mayoral race Thursday, characterizing Bass as “a proven leader who will bring Angelenos together to solve problems while championing women’s rights and opportunities for young people.” As Julia Wick reported, the endorsement marked a further consolidation of Democratic support for Bass in her runoff against real estate developer Rick Caruso.

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