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Democratic senators who passed DOMA 17 years ago cheer its end; Republicans mostly quiet

Even in an institution where nothing seems to change, 17 years makes a big difference.

In 1996, the federal Defense of Marriage Act passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities of both parties. There had never been anyone elected to either body who was openly gay when they ran for office. Even now-Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, voted to define marriage as between one man and one woman for the purpose of federal benefits.

No more. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court declared that 1996 law unconstitutional. (It also paved the way for restoring sex marriage rights in California, though the high court didn't prohibit other states from banning it.)

"Congressional desire," the court held in its majority opinion striking down DOMA, "to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group."

In 2013's Congress, Democrats celebrated -- even many of those who had voted for the law. Objections from Republicans -- with a few exceptions -- were muted. And there are now a host of gay members of Congress who, along with all gay Americans, have new rights in the wake of the Supreme Court's decisions.

"I feel jubilation, I feel fabulous, I feel every gay word I can think of," said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the first non-white gay person elected to Congress.

"The nation’s highest court reaffirmed our founding belief that all Americans are created equal under the law," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. "The court made a strong statement for equality and freedom, overturning discrimination against gay and lesbian American citizens simply because of who they love."

A litany of senators who had voted for DOMA in 1996 -- including Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Carl Levin, D-Mich. -- lauded the twin decisions, calling them "victories for equality and for simple human dignity" (Levin),  labeling Wednesday "a day of joy for all of the loving, committed LGBT couples across America" (Murray), and pledging to "to work to ensure that all our laws respect the rights of every American" (Leahy).

On the other side, Republican opposition went mostly unvoiced. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the Kentucky senator supports traditional marriage; but the whole morning ticked away without a statement from McConnell himself.

House Speaker John Boehner, who led House Republicans in a charge to defend DOMA at the Supreme Court, issued a statement defending that action.

“The House intervened in this case because the constitutionality of a law should be judged by the Court, not by the president unilaterally," Boehner said. "While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances."

What vocal opposition there was came mainly from religious conservatives.

"Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said in a statement. "For thousands of years of recorded human history, no society has defended the legal standard of marriage as anything other than between man and woman."


NBC's Frank Thorp contributed to this report.