House panel approves domestic benefits bill
UPDATE 7:33 P.M. ET:
The committee approved the bill 23 to 12 following more than four hours of debate. More details in tomorrow's Federal Diary column by Joe Davidson, and The Eye promises to post a more detailed transcript Thursday afternoon.
UPDATE 7:02 P.M. ET
Lawmakers reconvened at 4:15 p.m. following several votes on the House floor. Members have since considered almost one dozen amendments to the measure that would, among other things, prohibit the bill from modifying the Defense of Marriage Act, prohibit illegal immigrants from obtaining any benefits, and require the Government Accountability Office to submit regular progress reports.
The debate has devolved to petty, personal attacks at several times, especially during consideration of the immigration amendment, introduced by Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.)
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) blasted the proposal, saying Republicans were trying to marginalize gay people and illegal immigrants.
Staffers expect a long afternoon of debate as Democrats and Republicans go back and forth on the financial and social impact of the bill.
Supporters of H.R. 2517 argue the federal government is well behind the times.
“Make no mistake: We are losing good, hardworking people from the federal government," committee chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said at the start of the debate. Almost 10,000 American organizations offer benefits to domestic partners, including more than 20 state governments, the District of Columbia's government and most Fortune 500 companies, Towns said.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who has guided the bill through the committee, said "I think that the federal government has a responsibility here to be the shining example ... of fairness and equality in the workplace."
"I think this is the right time for this. It's been too long in waiting," Lynch said.
But the panel's ranking member, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), argued that it's foolish for the government to extend such benefits at a time when so many other Americans are out of work.
“America is suffering. America is cutting back. Americans are losing wages and benefits. ... They want jobs, they want health care and they’re going to be shocked that a new benefits at taxpayer expense got ahead of a new stimulus," Issa said.
Towns acknowledged that the bill will mean a “relatively minor” cost to the government, but said the Obama administration has committed to finding a way to pay for the measure in order to keep with House PAYGO rules.
Other Republican members voiced concerns about the bill's potential impact on traditional marriage and argue it unfairly discriminates against heterosexuals living together in non-traditional relationships, like an unmarried heterosexual couple or children living with their ill parents.
The bill "appears to diminish the standing of federal employees who may share the same dwelling and collaborate intimately with a member of the opposite sex," said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).
"Even though many people heroically care for others, outside of recognized familial circumstances, federal law has not recognized these relationships," Fortenberry said later.
"I for one stand tall for traditional marriage," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). "I think the majority of the American people stand tall for traditional marriage. In fact, 31 times in a row, put on a ballot measure in a state, the people of those states have voted in favor of recognizing and continuing to recognize traditional marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Thirty-one times in a row."
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