Pitching GOP on gay marriage bill, Tammy Baldwin leaves nothing to chance

WASHINGTON — Senator Tammy Baldwin, the soft-spoken liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, was on a plane returning from Washington last month when she learned that Senator Ron Johnson, her colleague from the home state and a far-right Republican, had publicly stated that he would not oppose a bill protecting same-sex marriage rights.

Seizing a rare moment when she and Mr Johnson – polar opposites in every way – could agree on something, Ms Baldwin typed him a text saying she was thrilled.

‘Don’t let them add anything obnoxious,’ Mr Johnson replied.

“I said I would do nothing to jeopardize his chances of success,” Ms Baldwin said in an interview in her Senate hideout last week. “But we can differ on what constitutes ‘abhorrent’.”

Mr Johnson replied with a thumbs-up emoji and wished her a nice weekend.

Ms Baldwin, 60, who in 1999 became the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, led the effort to win over the 10 Republican senators whose support is needed to secure passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, that would provide federal protections for same-sex marriage rights at a time of growing concern that they are in jeopardy.

Today Ms Baldwin, whose serene temperament and reserve set her apart from her more rushed and partisan colleagues, is in the limelight as a central player in a surprise legislative push, just weeks before the midterm congressional elections, to ensure that the rights of same-sex married couples are recognized across the country.

So far, five Republicans, including Mr Johnson, have publicly said they would support the legislation, which the House passed last month with a surprisingly high fraction of GOP votes. The others are Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Ms Baldwin says that privately, at least five other Republicans have assured her they will also support the bill when Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, follows through on his promise to introduce it, probably sometime after Labor Day.

“Increasingly, my fellow Republicans know of married gay men,” Ms Baldwin said. “They see that the sky has not fallen. Maybe some of them went to these ceremonies. Maybe some people know, but for that marriage certificate, their cousin couldn’t have seen his wife in the hospital because she would have been a legal stranger.

Democrats are pushing to enact the legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down the nearly 50-year-old abortion rights, fearing precedents on same-sex marriages and protecting the rights of those couples will fall. be the next to fall. In a concurring opinion in the abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Judge Clarence Thomas suggested the court “should also reconsider” past rulings that have established marriage equality and access to contraception.

The House moved quickly to pass the same-sex marriage bill, as Democrats rushed to raise their profile on the issue and Republicans on the spot ahead of the election. But 47 Republicans voted in favor – less than a quarter of the conference but a larger proportion than expected – and Mr Schumer said he would work to find the votes needed to get past a filibuster and of a vote.

Within hours, a bill that many thought was dead when it arrived in the Senate received an intensive legislative push.

Ms. Baldwin, the epitome of Midwestern kindness who enjoys sewing and cooking — hobbies she describes as “boring” — is in some ways an unlikely arm for the effort.

Never one to draw attention, she downplayed the historic nature of her victory when she won her Senate seat 10 years ago, midway through her speech before mentioning that she was “well aware “that his election was a milestone for gay rights. (She also made history in 1999 when she was elected to the House, the first openly gay woman to serve there.)

Ms Baldwin herself is unmarried, although she was in a domestic partnership which has since been dissolved.

The issue defined his career in public service. Ms. Baldwin began working on marriage and domestic partnership legislation as a member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors and in the Wisconsin State Assembly in the 1990s, at a time when, a she said, “all the results were bad”.

The picture is much different today, she noted. Since 2015, when the Supreme Court established constitutional rights to same-sex marriage, the number of Americans in such marriages has risen to more than 1.1 million. Elected officials from both political parties feel a more personal connection to the issue, and many see their families in imminent danger.

“People are literally scared whether their marriage will be dissolved by the court,” Ms Baldwin said. “Important rights associated with marriage at the state and federal level could evaporate.”

Still, the marriage equality bill has a narrow path in the equally divided Senate, and Democrats were taking no chances. Mr Schumer, wary of banking on private pledges of support, told Ms Baldwin he wanted a buffer and asked her to look for a few more Republicans to add to his ‘yes’ column to comfortably account for any last minute colds. feet. (Still, Mr. Schumer has pledged to put the bill to a vote, regardless of the final count.)

Democrats and Republicans backing the measure worried, for example, whether Mr Johnson, who said he sees ‘no reason to oppose’ the legislation, could be counted as a reliable ‘yes’ on any vote. procedural to ensure its adoption. If he just voted “present,” they would still need another Republican to support the legislation in order to pass it. Mr Johnson’s office declined to clarify its position.

With potential obstacles in mind, Ms. Baldwin has worked with her colleagues, on the phone on the weekends and wherever she encounters a Republican during her day.

Even as the issue took a back seat as the Democrats’ climate and health package took the final days before the Senate recess in August, Ms Baldwin was working with Ms Collins to bolster Republican support by adding language that explicitly states that it would take away no protection of religious liberty or conscience.

Dressed in a seafoam green jacket, she spoke quietly in the Senate last week with her office colleague, Sen. Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, who said he was undecided as to how which he would vote on the bill. Mr. Braun, listening intently, picked up a pen at one point and began taking notes as Ms. Baldwin spoke.

As she buttoned Sen. Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, Mr. Young could be heard saying to Ms. Baldwin: “Oh wow, that would be powerful”, and wondering if he could find any reports from the Search Service of Congress related to their discussion.

Ms Baldwin has worked to persuade Republicans that it is prudent to support the measure. She said she reminded Utah Sen. Mitt Romney that his four colleagues from Utah’s all-Republican delegation voted “yes.”

The whipping operation began almost immediately after the House vote, when Ms Baldwin headed down to introduce the Senate version of the bill and met Mr Portman.

“I had on my smartphone the names of all the Republicans who had just voted in the House, and there were a bunch of Republicans from Ohio,” Ms. Baldwin said. “I said, ‘Rob, look at this! “”

“I started talking with others, and it went from hypothetical to ‘we could really do this,'” she said.

In her conversations, Ms. Baldwin pointed out that the bill is simple — less than four pages. She told other Republicans that reasoning like Mr Johnson’s – that the legislation is unnecessary but there’s no harm in passing it – is a perfectly acceptable justification for a ‘yes’ vote. “.

The lobbying effort has been as non-confrontational as Ms. Baldwin is. Just after Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, dismissed the bill to a CNN reporter as a “dumb waste of time”, Ms Baldwin found herself alone in an elevator with him. The elevator ride was described as a “confrontation” with a senator who is up for re-election in a red state.

But Ms. Baldwin is not one to make passionate encounters. She said she left the elevator politely telling Mr. Rubio, “We’ll come back to that.” (In fact, the two visited each other again over the matter, a spokesperson said.)

Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat and the second openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Senate, has also worked closely with Ms. Baldwin to rally Republican support for the bill. She spoke with Mr Johnson in the Senate before Ms Baldwin texted him and worked closely with Mr Tillis and Mr Portman, her spokeswoman said.

Ms Baldwin said she was determined to ensure that the Senate did not make the same mistake on marriage equality that she believed it had made on abortion – that is, to wait until It’s too late to try to legislate federal guarantees for rights that the court has already found to be constitutionally protected.

She didn’t take anything for granted. As she counts noses, Ms Baldwin said she kept the coronavirus in mind, aware that in a 50-50 Senate, even one case could wipe out the margin of support needed to steer the bill. to a final vote.

“We are going to need everyone here. If we have two Democrats with Covid, I need two more Republicans, which I may have, but you don’t want to roll the dice,” Ms Baldwin said. “You want to be certain.”

Catherine Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington.