The Senate on Wednesday voted to start debate on legislation that would codify same-sex marriage protections, paving the way for it to pass by the end of the week.
Senators voted 62-37 to advance the measure, with 12 Republicans joining with every Democrat in support. Lawmakers are expected to vote again tomorrow to invoke cloture, potentially setting up a final vote by the end of the week.
“This legislation unites Americans,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the lone senator who identifies as a lesbian, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “With the Respect for Marriage Act, we can ease the fear for millions of same-sex and interracial couples have that their freedoms and their rights could be stripped away.”
“By passing this bill, we are guaranteeing same-sex and interracial couples regardless of where they live that their marriage is legal and that they will continue to enjoy the rights and the responsibilities that all other marriages are afforded. And this will give millions of loving couples the certainty, the dignity and the respect that they need and that they deserve,” Baldwin continued, adding that it would help remove “the weight of the world” from the backs of such couples.
A vote on the original bill in late September was punted until after the midterms due to the lack of GOP support prior to Election Day.
A number of Republicans finally came on board to back the proposal after a group of five senators, headed by Baldwin and Susan Collins (R-Maine), unveiled an amendment on Monday that contained religious freedom provisions.
Along with Collins, GOP Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Todd Young (Ind.) voted to advance the proposal.
Only Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who is stepping away from Washington to serve as president of the University of Florida, did not vote.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost that he’s “hoping” final passage could take place before the looming Thanksgiving break.
The updated language protects nonprofit religious organizations from providing services in support of same-sex marriage, as well as religious liberty and conscience protections under the Constitution and federal law. It would also ensure that the federal government does not recognize polygamous marriage.
Schumer argued Wednesday that passing the bill would represent one of the “highlights of the year for this body.”
“This has been an incredibly productive year in Congress, full of many significant achievements. But I think passing the Respect for Marriage Act would be one of the more significant accomplishments of the Senate to date,” Schumer said from the chamber floor.
Only six Senate Republicans — Collins, Portman, Tillis, Romney, Murkowski and Blunt — had announced their support for the bill prior to Wednesday, with many others remaining tight-lipped beforehand.
But in a sign of the times, the Mormon church, which had previously spent millions of dollars in opposition to gay marriage legislation at the state level, came out in support of the measure on Tuesday.
“We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work 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,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement. “We believe this approach is the way forward.”
Baldwin had told The Hill on Tuesday that she had hoped for a “robust” level of bipartisan support behind the proposal.
Many Republicans who voted against the legislation cited the protections already in place from the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015 that enshrined marriage equality.
“Nothing in the bill adds new protections for gay marriage, but it does, in my view, create great uncertainty about religious liberty and institutions who oppose gay marriage,” tweeted GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
If the bill passes the upper chamber, the House will have to once again pass it with the new religious freedom amendment.
Forty-seven House Republicans voted for the original bill in July, alongside every House Democrat.
Updated at 4:37 p.m.