The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration reform bill today without voting on two amendments seeking to provide benefits to same-sex couples, and the roof erupted into loud applause and cheers.
Many LGBT immigration activists had been waiting for the two amendments, both from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Committee, to be offered Tuesday afternoon. But late Tuesday morning, Leahy surprised many when he stated that all the amendments from the Democratic side of the committee had been addressed.
That came close on the heels of reports that the White House had asked that the two LGBT-related amendments be set aside until the full Senate takes up the overall bill.
While some held out hope that perhaps Leahy still intended to bring up his amendments, he brought them up for discussion but then said he was withdrawing them due to heavy Republican opposition.
"I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word," said Leahy, noting that many had said they would withdraw their support of the overall bill if the gay language was included.
"As a result …I will withhold calling for a vote but I will continue to fight for equality."
An Associated Press article in the late morning said "two people familiar with Senate immigration deliberations say the White House has suggested [to Leahy] that it would be best to put off a controversy over gay marriage until a bill goes before the full Senate."
AP said both sources spoke on the condition that its news report would not identify them.
An aide to the Judiciary Committee told this reporter that, while Leahy and President Obama speak often, Senator Leahy "does not discuss what they speak about in any given week." The White House also had no comment about the AP report Tuesday.
"We are extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote on the measure that remains popular with the American people," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. He and others blamed a small group of Republican senators who had been vocal about their determination not to let the gay language onto the bill.
"Republicans have been signalling their posture on this for long time, and we can't bring it up in committee because they've dug in their heels," said Winnie Stachelberg, an openly gay executive vice president at the Center for American Progress. "They've created a scenario where the amendments can't be offered."
Immigration Equality Action Fund Executive Director Rachel Tiven said Democrats on the committee "caved to bullying by their Republican colleagues."
"There should be shame on both sides of the political aisle today for lawmakers who worked to deny LGBT immigrant families a vote," said Tiven. "Despite widespread support from business, labor, faith, Latino and Asian-American advocates, senators abandoned LGBT families without a vote."
Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls singled out Democrat Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
"We know that Senator Schumer remains uncommitted regarding a vote on the [gay] amendments and has not pushed back on GOP Senators on the Committee who are making threats about the amendment," said Ralls. "Earlier this afternoon, Schumer would only say 'no comment' when asked if he would vote for the amendments."
Schumer is considered a strong supporter of equal rights for LGBT people, and he is a co-sponsor of a stand-alone bill, the Uniting American Families Act. The UAFA provides the language for one of Leahy's two gay-related amendments and seeks to allow a U.S. citizen to gain citizenship for his or her "permanent partner."
Schumer is also a leading member of the "Gang of Eight," a group of Democratic and Republican senators who drafted the overall comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744), which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Politico.com reported Monday that a May 10 "off the record" meeting between Schumer and a group of LGBT activists and elected officials grew "heated" over the issue. Politico reported that some "key Democrats have quietly pushed" President Obama to ask Leahy to delay the gay amendments but did not identify Schumer specifically.
But Ralls said Schumer and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) "assured our families" that gay-related protections would be in the immigration reform bill from the beginning.
"When the base bill was not inclusive," said Ralls, talking about the Gang of Eight's original draft proposal, "they assured us we would receive a vote in Committee."
But the committee did not vote on either the UAFA amendment or the second amendment, which would treat as a "spouse" a person who has entered a marriage with a citizen that is "valid in the State in which the marriage was entered into."
At a hearing last month on the proposed draft bill, former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe urged members of the Judiciary Committee to "fix" the bill by adding language to help LGBT citizens with foreign partners or spouses. But neither Schumer, Durbin, nor Senator Dianne Feinstein, who also helped the Gang of Eight on the draft bill, said anything in support of adding gay-related language during that hearing. Meanwhile, several Republicans on the committee and in the Gang of Eight have been very vocal about their opposition to the gay-related language. As recently as May 13, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) issued a Twitter post saying, "If the Judiciary Committee tries to redefine marriage in the immigration bill they will lose me and many others." Gang of Eight member Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told politico.com last month that adding language to allow same-sex permanent partners to immigrate would "virtually guarantee" that the overall bill won't pass and undo the cooperative spirit of the "Gang of Eight" senators who put the bill together. And Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last month at a forum, "if you're going to load it up with social issues, that is the best way to derail it in my view."
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