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Democrats' push to protect same-sex marriage is personal for Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks at a May press conference in Washington, D.C. Congressional Democrats are working to codify same-sex marriage and other rights that they fear are at risk following the Supreme Court's ruling on <em>Roe v. Wade</em>.
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Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks at a May press conference in Washington, D.C. Congressional Democrats are working to codify same-sex marriage and other rights that they fear are at risk following the Supreme Court's ruling on Roe v. Wade.

Updated July 27, 2022 at 11:05 AM ET

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade didn't just disrupt abortion access across the country. It also raised concerns that other landmark rulings — including those legalizing birth control and same-sex marriage — could be next.

While Justice Samuel Alito stressed in his opinion that the legal logic behind the Roe decision would not apply to other cases, Justice Clarence Thomas has suggested otherwise. He wrote in his concurring opinion that future cases "should reconsider all of this Court's substantive due process precedents," specifically listing those that protect contraception, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage.

Democrats in Congress are now working to codify those protections into law, starting with marriage equality. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is at the forefront of that effort in the Senate.

The task is especially personal for Baldwin, who in 2012 made history as the country's first openly gay person (and first Wisconsin woman) to be elected to the Senate.

"There's an old adage that if you're not in the room the conversation is about you, if you're in the room the conversation is with you — and that makes all the difference," Baldwin says. "I'm experiencing that right now. People who might have said this is just a political issue understand that for somebody in the LGBTQ community, it's a personal matter."

The Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges established a right to same-sex marriage across the U.S. — one that plaintiff Jim Obergefell now worries is on shaky ground. He's one of many LGBTQ advocates who wants Congress to protect these rights at the federal level.

"If Congress can't step up and say, these are the rights we believe in, these are the fundamental rights, the human rights, the civil rights that deserve protection, if not from the Supreme Court under law, then what is worth fighting for?" he told NPR's All Things Considered last month.

The Respect for Marriage Act, which would enshrine same-sex and interracial marriage in federal law, passed the House of Representatives last week. While 47 Republicans voted in favor, other GOP critics have portrayed the bill as unnecessary, dismissing it as election-year politics and downplaying the threat of future Supreme Court action.

The bill now faces the challenge of getting through an equally divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. All Democrats are already on board, and President Biden is urging the Senate to send it to his desk for a signature as swiftly as possible.

Baldwin is leading the charge to secure the 10 Republican votes needed to pass the measure. She's been working behind the scenes to try to whip up support from her Republican colleagues, including confronting Sen. Marco Rubio on an elevator after overhearing him call the bill "a stupid waste of time."

She says five Republican senators have signaled their support so far, and is optimistic that others will follow.

"The conversations are very hopeful, and I will say that a number of Republicans have privately agreed to support the bill, but not publicly," she tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel. "And so we don't want to bring it to the floor until we know that we can pass the legislation, with the 60 requisite votes."

Interview highlights

On why Republicans who support the bill aren't saying so in public

It's hard for me to speak for everybody and their motivation, but I think there's some uncertainty among my Republican colleagues as to whether the bill actually will get to the floor and receive a vote, and so that leads to some hesitance to publicly declare one's stance.

On why marriage equality seems to be a less divisive issue than abortion rights

In the years since the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land in the Obergefell decision, more and more of my colleagues have friends, family, coworkers, staff members who are married to a same-sex partner. That really changes, I think, one's focus. Even if years ago there was some hesitance to support marriage equality, it's now part of most people's everyday reality to know somebody who has married in order to provide legal protections for their family.

[Public support for same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high of 70%, according to a Gallup poll released in June, the first in which a majority of Republicans approves.]

On why federal action is needed to protect marriage equality

It's a different Supreme Court today than it was in 2015, and certainly I know so many who are very worried about the certainty of their marriage. Marriage confers with it rights and responsibilities that allow you to protect your family, to access your spouse, say in the hospital in a medical emergency — without marriage you're a legal stranger, with marriage you have that access. And that's one of just hundreds of examples of what a marriage confers, in terms of those rights and responsibilities. I know that there's a high level of urgency to protect marriage and marriage equality.

This interview was conducted by Leila Fadel, produced by Shelby Hawkins and edited by HJ Mai.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.