Gay Rights Could Complicate Immigration Bill

Republicans say including same-sex couples could sink the bill. Is it true?

May 1, 2013— -- A push to include gay couples in a bipartisan immigration reform bill threatens to upset the delicate coalition backing the proposal in the Senate, Politico reports.

Under current law, Americans in a heterosexual relationship can sponsor their foreign-born spouses for green cards. But gay and lesbian couples cannot do so, since federal law does not recognize same-sex marriages. The "Gang of Eight" bill as written leaves same-sex couples out.

But now, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), is strongly considering offering an amendment to the bill during a markup session next week that would extend the ability to sponsor a spouse to gay and lesbian couples. That provision could affect as many as 40,000 binational same-sex couples.

Here's why that could complicate the immigration debate.

Senate Republicans who backed the immigration bill have already taken a significant political risk in supporting a proposal that would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants. Tacking on an expansion of rights for same-sex couples, another fractious debate within the GOP, might be enough to break apart the bipartisan coalition.

Republican negotiators on immigration have long said that including same-sex couples in the immigration bill would be a dealbreaker. And if a large number of GOP senators decide to vote no, that may prevent sponsors from attracting the 70-vote majority they hope to achieve in order to force the House to act.

"Immigration is hard enough. Let's not go down the road of redefining marriage," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters last month, adding that the language "is not going to be in the bill."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-S.C.) echoed that point to Politico.

"It will virtually guarantee that it won't pass," he said. "This issue is a difficult enough issue as it is. I respect everyone's views on it. But ultimately, if that issue is injected into this bill, the bill will fail and the coalition that helped put it together will fall apart."

And as Politico's Carrie Budoff-Brown points out, the provision might also provoke a host of evangelical and Catholic leaders who have endorsed the "Gang of Eight" effort. Support from religious groups has been viewed by advocates as crucial to winning the backing of GOP lawmakers and approval from conservative voters.

But for many Democrats, the political calculus is different.

Immigrant- and gay-rights advocacy groups have been prodding Democratic lawmakers for months to include same-sex couples in the bill. And they were reportedly frustrated that the "Gang of Eight" bill left out that language after Republicans threw up a red flag.

"Our total focus is on making sure that we have the votes in committee to ensure that the bill, when it reaches the full Senate, does include our families," Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, told ABC/Univision last month.

Some advocates believe that if the Supreme Court decided to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act this summer, the ruling would give same-sex couples rights equal to heterosexual couples under immigration law. But they also appear to be wary of depending on a court ruling to decide the issue.

Democrats who back same-sex protections also believe they are negotiating from a position of strength, coming off an election in which President Obama won seven in ten Latino voters. Democrats also hold a majority on the Judiciary Committee and the amendment would pass if all Democratic senators on the panel vote for it. They don't believe that including the language will sink the bill.

"It's not going to kill the bill," Leahy said, according to Politico.

All of this could put sponsors of the bill in a tough position, making this issue one of the top ones to watch at next's week's markup.