Elizabeth Warren 102622 15-10262022212845 (copy)

Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul applaud as Sen. Tammy Baldwin takes the microphone during an early voting rally with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Oct. 26.

Wisconsinites could be excused for imagining that progress in Washington ground to a standstill in the run-up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections. With the two major parties spending billions to attack one another, and with ideological tensions peaking, how could bipartisan agreement be achieved on any issue of consequence? And especially on an issues so consequential as same-sex marriage?

And yet it is happening.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin's steadfast refusal to let anything get in the way of her advocacy for the codification of marriage equality is paying off. Last week, the senator’s determined efforts were rewarded with a major victory in the struggle to secure passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, for which she has led the charge.

The Senate voted 62-37 in support of a motion to invoke cloture and proceed to debate on the proposed legislation. The vote, which removed the threat of a filibuster, came after Baldwin and her allies — such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Susan Collins, R-Maine — got every one of the Senate’s 50 Democrats and 12 Republicans to accept the need for the chamber to act in defense of the basic premise that loving couples have a right to marry.

That right was established at the federal level with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which in 2015 held that states could not bar same-sex couples from marrying, or refuse recognition of those marriages. The court determined that such barriers violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses. That decision built on the legal logic, and the promise of social advancement, that was outlined in the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which determined that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

While that should have settled things once and for all, the right-wing judicial activists who form a majority on the current U.S. Supreme Court have shown a disdain for precedent that requires a legislative response. Baldwin recognized that requirement and, as the first out lesbian elected to the U.S. House and to the U.S. Senate, she chose to take the lead in organizing the response.

The urgency of the need for congressional action was highlighted by the high court’s June decision to reject the precedent established by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established federal protections for abortion rights. The court’s majority opinion to overturn Roe was accompanied by an opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas, which urged the court’s right-wing judicial activist majority to keep upending precedents based on the 14th Amendment. “We have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents,” argued Thomas, who made reference to the Obergefell decision on a list of rulings he suggested that the court “reconsider.”

Baldwin got busy immediately. Referencing a June Gallup Poll that showed 71% of Americans support same-sex marriage, she argued publicly that codifying marriage equality would show “that our policymakers and our members of Congress are catching up with the American public opinion."

Privately, she met with senators on the other side of the aisle, making personal appeals for support. It was not an easy process. In some cases, she was let down, as when Wisconsin’s senior senator, Republican Ron Johnson, initially indicated that he saw "no reason to oppose" the Respect for Marriage Act, but then dismissed it as a political distraction and voted “no” on the cloture motion.

But Baldwin’s persistence paid off.

With the help of Susan Collins, she negotiated an agreement with a number of conservative Republican senators to include protections for religious institutions. The tinkering even won a favorable word from the Mormons, with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints hailing Collins' efforts “to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”

Ultimately, Republican senators such as Tom Tillis of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Joni Ernst of Iowa — not exactly a crew of social liberals — joined Baldwin, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in backing the cloture motion.

Prior to last Wednesday’s vote, Baldwin delivered a stirring speech in which she put a human face on the debate — telling the story of a same-sex couple from Madison and their adopted daughter — and warned against complacency in the face of threats from conservative justices on the high court.

The vast majority of Baldwin’s colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, embraced the argument that Baldwin made, out of respect for her, and for the logic of her appeal.

“Today, we took a step forward in our fight to give millions of loving couples the certainty, dignity, and respect that they need and deserve,” Baldwin announced after the cloture vote. “A bipartisan coalition of senators stood with the overwhelming majority of Americans who support marriage equality. We came together to move the Respect for Marriage Act forward and give the millions of Americans in same-sex and interracial marriages the certainty that they will continue to enjoy the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities afforded to all other marriages. I am proud to have worked across the aisle to earn broad, bipartisan support for this legislation, and look forward to making marriage equality the law of the land.”

And Wisconsin is proud to have Tammy Baldwin, an unwavering advocate for fairness and a masterful legislator, as our U.S. senator.

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