Image: Dianna Feinstein
Hyungwon Kang  /  REUTERS
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is the chief sponsor of a bill repealing the federal law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
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updated 11/10/2011 1:43:14 PM ET 2011-11-10T18:43:14

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to repeal a federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but the legislation lacks vote for passage in either House.

The vote was 10-8, with all committee Democrats favoring appeal and all Republicans opposed. The only immediate effect is political: Democrats can show part of their liberal base of backers that they strongly support equality in federal benefits for gay couples.

The repeal bill would need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, and sponsors acknowledged the votes aren't there. The measure would have no chance in the House, controlled by conservative Republicans.

The current federal law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act, has a huge negative economic impact on gay couples through the denial of federal government benefits.

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Those couples cannot file joint federal income tax returns and take deductions available in traditional marriages. There are no spousal Social Security benefits. They can't take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave law that protects one's job and health insurance during emergency absences. Surviving gay spouses have no protection from estate taxes.

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Because of the law, "thousands of American families are now being treated unfairly by their federal government," said the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "They are shunted aside — singled out from all other marriages recognized by their states."

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's top Republican, called it "simply wrong to claim that the bill would create federal benefits for all lawfully married couples. In reality, it would create federal benefits for many same-sex couples who are not lawfully married."

Grassley said he was referring to the repeal bill's federal recognition of a same-sex marriage, even if the legally married couple moves to a state where gay marriage is illegal.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the law "is discriminatory and should be stricken." Numerous businesses, she said, have supported repeal because they need to maintain a separate set of books when calculating health and retirement benefits.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "has no intention of bringing this bill up this year or next. Reid "would face a revolution in his own caucus" if he did, Cornyn said.

Perry does damage control

He said the Democrats were trying to satisfy their gay marriage supporters for the 2012 election.

In advance of the vote, Leahy had defended the timing, saying that "it is never the wrong time to right an injustice."

It is likely that the issue will be debated right up to the 2012 elections, while challenges to the law take place in several federal appeals courts. Conservatives pledged to make it a front-burner issue after President Barack Obama decided in February his administration no longer would defend the law.

Much has changed since President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. The District of Columbia and six states now recognize gay marriage: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New York and New Hampshire.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Senate committee to debate DOMA repeal bill

  1. Closed captioning of: Senate committee to debate DOMA repeal bill

    >>> and the senate judiciary committee begins debate today on a proposal to repeal the federal defensive marriage act , otherwise known as doma . the law defiance marriage as being between one man and one woman. now a group of 30 senators have prepared the respect for marriage act which would require the federal government to provide benefits to couples in same-sex marriages. dianne feinstein serves on the senate judiciary committee and joins me now this morning. senator, it's nice to see you.

    >> good morning, thomas.

    >> so all indications are that your bill might get through the committee but it probably won't pass the senate, definitely won't pass the house. do you have the votes to repeal doma ?

    >> oh, i don't think we have the votes right now. but this is a changing picture. you know, when doma was passed 15 years ago, not a single state supported same-sex marriage. now you have six states, plus the district of columbia . that changes the argument. because family law and marriage is a preserve of the state. so you have a legal marriage. and what doma does is deny federal benefits . federal social security benefits, family leave , estate tax protections, those kinds of things to same-sex couples. so it discriminates against one class of what is a legal class, and that is the state legally married . so i think there are very good grounds to eventually get doma repealed. it may take time, people have to understand it, they have to see it, but i think we can get it done.

    >> senator, for the defenders of doma , the welfare of children is often cited as the reason why marriage should be maintained as, quote, unquote, traditional but recent studies have shown as long as the home is loving and stable, the kids grow up to be just fine and census figures showing there are two million kids being raised by same-sex parents. what's at stake for those kids if the federal government continues to reject their families as being legitimate?

    >> well, what's at stake for those children is really a sense of illegitimate see. that the adoption isn't enough and the family they live in isn't a legal family. these are children, many of whom would not have had other adopted families. so the ability, and i know gay families who raise children and do a very good job of it, so i think it's really counterproductive to wage that argument. we should be delighted that there are people that want to adopt children who otherwise for the most part may not have had an adoptive home.

    >> senator, doma was passed and signed into law. the voters of california voted not to recognize same-sex marriage. your critics say it's not the place of the federal government to buck state and local governments, force them to recognize same-sex unions as legal. so what do you say to them?

    >> well, what i say to them is california is changing. i think the polls in california now say that a majority of californians would support same-sex marriage. so that's the good thing. additionally, as you know, there is a legal case being brought saying that proposition 8 is illegal. that will likely go up to the supreme court . there have been different appellate court decisions on it. so that argument is going on in terms of the court. but i think as more individuals know people who are gay, understand that marriage brings about a certainty, brings about economic stability, brings about really a very positive and stable situation for people, i think more people come to accept it.

    >> senator, last month i got to attend the hrc dinner in san francisco where you were the keynote speaker . you said that you were going to be in this fight for the long haul. can you put a definitive timetable on what "long haul" means?

    >> however long it takes, i am there. and i believe our 31 co-sponsors are there as well. so i think we will gain co-sponsors. i think more states are going to legalize same-sex marriage. and i think the knowledge that the federal government stepping into this area and denying some 1100 rights and benefits that are afforded to every other married couple is not the right thing to do. in fact it is a kind of pernicious discrimination.

    >> senator dianne feinstein , always a pleasure to talk with you, senator. thanks for your time this morning.

    >> thanks.

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