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The Senate's fight over same-sex marriage may hinge on Wisconsin's senators, who don't agree on much

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, in a tough re-election fight, has waffled on the legislation, which Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is spearheading.

The Senate push to enshrine federal protections for same-sex marriage has landed Wisconsin’s two senators — liberal Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator in history, and conservative Ron Johnson, who faces a tough re-election bid this fall and has waffled on the issue — in the spotlight.

There was a point months ago when it appeared the two — who typically shun the media — could agree on something else, too, when Johnson left the door open to supporting Baldwin’s same-sex marriage legislation.

But since then, what's been a challenging relationship has grown all the more fraught — even as Baldwin remains optimistic that she can ultimately get him on board. And interviews with both senators show a strain.

Asked how she would characterize her relationship with Johnson, Baldwin gave a bare-bones description. “We’re both senators from Wisconsin and there’s things we need to get done, but anyways — that’s all," she said as she ended the interview.

Baldwin has been leading the legislative effort, teaming with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to try to ensure that the Supreme Court doesn’t roll back the constitutional rights to gay and interracial marriage, as it did to abortion rights early this summer.

The bipartisan duo say they have drafted compromise language to address concerns from conservatives who have warned that the Respect for Marriage Act could infringe on religious liberty or allow polygamous marriages. But the amendment hasn’t been unveiled yet or shared privately with Senate colleagues. 

It’s a big reason a handful of Republicans like Johnson are unwilling to say where they stand on the issue and why Baldwin and Collins haven’t been able to nail down the 10 GOP votes they need to defeat a promised filibuster.

Baldwin, 60, a former county official, state legislator and U.S. House member, has indicated that she has secured at least five GOP votes, including those from members who have publicly stated that they support the bill, like Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio. Portman’s son is openly gay.

And Baldwin believes a handful of others — including her Wisconsin seatmate, Johnson, 67 — are gettable.

“We’re still hoping,” she said. 

The issue has put Johnson, the most vulnerable Senate Republican this cycle, in a tough spot in his race against progressive Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the first Black person to hold the job. More than 70% of Americans back same-sex marriage, and polls have shown Barnes with a slight lead over Johnson, a Donald Trump ally, even though he has the power of incumbency as he seeks a third six-year term.

“He’s a disgrace and doesn’t believe in protecting our rights and freedoms. He’s unfit for public office,” Barnes tweeted in response to a story last week that Johnson had flip-flopped on same-sex marriage.

The issue has also highlighted Baldwin and Johnson’s chilly relationship, which has only grown colder since same-sex marriage came to the forefront in the Senate.

Johnson, a conservative bomb thrower swept into the Senate in the tea party wave of 2010, has accused Baldwin of “leaking” to The New York Times a text message exchange between the two after he initially expressed an openness to supporting her bill to protect same-sex marriage.

He has since said that he opposes the bill in its current form and that the Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage was “wrongly decided.” 

“She texted me one time, and then she leaked the text to The New York Times, so that’s not a good way to deal with a fellow senator,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It’s the first time somebody’s actually leaked my texts. … We’ve been cordial, but again, I’ve never leaked texts between senators. It’s just the improper thing to do.”

While the legislation's backers haven’t secured the 10 votes, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., vows to press forward on an issue that Democrats believe will give them a boost in the coming midterms. If Schumer files cloture on the bill Thursday, it would likely set up a key procedural vote on the bill early next week at the 60-vote threshold.

Baldwin said it has been “a while” since she spoke to Johnson about the legislation. But she said she thinks he might be among the “yes” votes when the bill comes to the floor. 

"I think he will be. I think he might be, given the number of things I’ve read and a number of the people who are reaching out” to Johnson, Baldwin said in the hallway interview. 

She added that some supporters of the bill had been “assigned” to reach out to Johnson. She wouldn’t name names: “I’m not going to share that level of detail.”    

Collins said she hadn’t recently spoken with Johnson, either.

Neither Johnson nor Baldwin court the media in the halls. The gruff Johnson, who ran a plastic manufacturing business before he arrived in the Senate, has never appeared to enjoy sparring with reporters like some of his other GOP colleagues. Baldwin is often described as polite and soft-spoken, and despite her history-making election in 2012, she rarely seeks the limelight. 

These days, however, reporters have been hounding both about the same-sex marriage issue.

“I actually listen to constituents,” Johnson said in the interview. “There are some very legitimate concerns about religious liberty, and those concerns would have to be properly addressed.”

“I think people are” working on an amendment, he said, “but it’s got to provide very strong protections.”

Collins, who has been tasked with helping to round up GOP support, said she’s also “hopeful” they can get to 10.

“But as I said, you never know until the roll is called.”