Voices: Two unexpected Senators have become the most useful people in Congress due to a new vote on same-sex marriage

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Biden with a bipartisan group of Senators including Rob Portman and Tammy Baldwin  (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Biden with a bipartisan group of Senators including Rob Portman and Tammy Baldwin (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Rob Portman of Ohio and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin could not be more different Senators.

Rob Portman is a mild-mannered pro-business Cincinnati Republican who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in George W Bush’s administration. His 2016 re-election campaign saw him outperform Donald Trump by 7.7 points, and when he spoke at the White House last year during the signing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, he also credited Trump along with President Joe Biden.

Tammy Baldwin, by contrast, is a pro-labor progressive Democrat in the tradition of Bob LaFollette and Gaylord Nelson. While serving as a Congresswoman, she voted against the war in Iraq; today, she supports abortion rights and Medicare for All.

Despite her record, or perhaps because of it, she won re-election in 2018 by more than ten points, outperforming Democratic Governor Tony Evers. Crucially, Baldwin won this resounding victory despite the fact that Trump became the first Republican since Reagan to win the Badger State two years before.

These two Rust Belt Senators should not have much in common. But they both are becoming leaders on same-sex marriage and have a personal connection to the subject: Baldwin is the first openly gay female Senator, and Portman announced his support for marriage equality after his son Will came out in 2013.

Now, as the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade has left many LGBT+ people worried that same-sex marriage could be the next target for the conservative majority, Baldwin and Portman are working on passing the Respect for Marriage Act alongside their colleagues Susan Collins of Maine and Dianne Feinstein of California.

As Baldwin told a gaggle of reporters on Wednesday, she is making the case that Congress needs to act to forestall a threat to marriage equality raised by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote in a concurring opinion in Dobbs v Jackson, the case that overturned Roe, that the court should “reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents”. He specifically named Lawrence v Texas, which protected same-sex relationships; Griswold v Connecticut, which prevented states from banning contraception; and Obergefell v Hodges, which ruled that same-sex couples could marry.

“It’d be one question if it weren’t the law and asking people to make it a law,” she said, “but now, it’s overwhelming American support for the ability of somebody to marry the person they love without political or government interference.”

It will be a tremendous challenge to get the legislation over the finish line. For those wondering: every Democrat will likely vote for it. Senator Joe Manchin told friend of the newsletter Manu Raju of CNN: “I haven’t seen the final print but I don’t have a problem.”

But while some Republicans are willing to back it – among them Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, whom your reporter profiled last month – others are being more cryptic, or are saying the legislation simply isn’t needed.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah – who as the Republican nominee for president in 2012 considered naming Portman as his running mate before picking Paul Ryan – said the bill was “unnecessary given the fact that the law is the same”.

When I asked Portman whether nine other Republicans would join him and all 50 Democrats to overcome the 60-vote threshold to beat a filibuster, the Senator replied he hadn’t done a whip count yet. But he also gave a vocal defense of why the bill mattered. “I’ve been told by some Republican colleagues this morning it’s just a message bill,” he said. “But it’s an important message.”

Of course, Portman – the consummate GOP dealmaker who helped negotiate not just the bipartisan infrastructure package but the recent gun safety bill – has little to lose since he is retiring come January next year. Still, he is making every moment count. Similarly, Baldwin has said before: “I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference.”

Nevertheless, sometimes history meets people and requires those who do make it to define it. And therefore, by virtue of their effort to provide security for same-sex partners, Portman and Baldwin, the odd couple of Rust Belt Senators, earn this month’s Most Useful People in Washington award. Don’t blow it all in one place.

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