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Senate Again Considers Same-Sex Benefits Bill

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 6:29 p.m. ET

Remember when President Obama said he wanted to make working for the federal government cool again? The government's chief human resources officer told lawmakers Thursday that they need to approve a bill that extends full benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of gay or lesbian federal employees in order to ensure the federal government stays competitive with the private sector.

“Young people are looking at this as an indicator that says, do you have this, and if not, this is not a cool place to be," Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"This really has become a litmus test for this generation. I know because I've been out talking to college students at our recruitment and job fairs," Berry said, noting that the Obama administration "wholeheartedly" endorses the bill reintroduced earlier this year by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

More than 34,000 federal employees live in committed same-sex partnerships and more than 30,000 of them have partners who are not federal employees, according to estimates in a 2007 UCLA study. If approved, the bill would cost taxpayers $56 million next year, Berry said.

The price tag equals roughly two-tenths of a percent of the entire cost to the government's federal employee health insurance, Berry said. His agency's estimate includes $19 million in savings from retirees who would elect to receive benefits for their domestic partners and thus get smaller annuity payments.

"I can assure the committee that the efficiencies and program reforms that we intend to put in place to benefit our federal employees and retirees will more than offset the costs of this program over the course of this administration," Berry said.

“That is a sum well worth the benefit that will accrue in recruiting and retaining the best people to serve as federal employees,” the panel's chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said.

Lieberman's hope that the bill would help the federal government recruit and retain more talented employees has been echoed by other supporters, who note that most Fortune 500 companies, 22 states and more than 150 state and local governments already extend such benefits. Berry said the bill's small small price tag means it would also serve as a powerful and cost-effective recruitment tool.

The $56 million annual cost compares to $43 million the federal government spends each year on relocation costs, the $85 million offered in recruitment incentives and $155 million spent on retention incentives, Berry said.

“This is a no-brainer for us in terms of a good deal for the federal taxpayer.”

Both Baldwin and Berry said they would personally benefit if Congress approves the bill. Baldwin noted that she has discussed the potential benefits with her lesbian partner of 13 years and Berry, the most senior openly gay official in the Obama administration, said his partner does not work for the federal government or a company that extends benefits to the gay partners of its employees.

No lawmakers voices opposition to the bill at Thursday's hearing, but House Republicans have previously expressed concerns that the measure discriminates against unmarried heterosexual partners. The bill's supporters note that heterosexual couples can marry and that OPM recognizes common-law marriages between heterosexual couples.

Lieberman said he expects his committee will vote on the bill by the end of December so the full Senate can consider it early next year.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | October 15, 2009; 12:16 PM ET
Categories:  Congress, Workplace Issues  
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