The Defense of Marriage Act evaporated in the US Congress not with a bang but with a whimper on Wednesday, after the US Supreme Court struck down the core of the law, allowing same-sex couples to access federal benefits in states that recognize gay marriage.
There appeared to be no spirit to rejoin the cultural wars over DOMA, a bill that passed Congress with a vast bipartisan majority in 1996 and was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.
Even House Republicans, whose lawyers defended the law before the court after President Obama’s administration declined, offered no fighting words on gay marriage. One by one, leading Republicans offered statements that showed they were ready, by and large, to leave the marriage rumble to the states.
“A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio in a statement.
That’s a sentiment echoed by House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia and a slew of other congressional Republicans including potential presidential hopefuls Sens. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky.
One might have expected party leaders to offer muted responses, considering that a review of the GOP’s 2012 election effort turned up two chief policy recommendations for the leaders: back off on gay marriage and get to work on immigration reform.
But even usual GOP firebrands like Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, the head of the influential and deeply conservative Republican Study Committee, saw the future of the fight as one to be joined outside the walls of the Capitol.
“By overturning DOMA, the Supreme Court has commandeered the role of voters and their elected representatives, and turned the definition of marriage over to unelected judges where this will now be litigated in the courts for years to come,” Representative Scalise said in a statement.
Not everyone on the right thinks the congressional fight is over, to be sure. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas, who is a frequent gadfly, told reporters he was working to revive an age-old conservative proposal, a federal marriage amendment, and hopes to formally file a proposal later this week.
Democrats, meanwhile, hailed the ruling, which also muted what could have been a difficult debate on the left: what to do about same-sex couples in the immigration system.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which amended the immigration bill before it came to the Senate floor, had held off his amendment equalizing treatment for same-sex couples under immigration law because Republicans – including "Gang of Eight" leaders Senator Rubio and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina – said its passage would kill their support for the bill.
With DOMA now out of the way, Democrats won’t have to swallow the bitter pill of unequal status for gay and lesbian immigrants.
Some 28,500 people would have a simpler road to US citizenship thanks to the ruling, estimates a quartet of groups supporting immigrant rights. The same groups, which include the United We Dream coalition and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, estimate that nearly 300,000 of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).
The lesson for both sides, for now, seems to be that while they haven't given up their passionate positions on gay marriage, it’s better not to fight.
“My hope is that those of us who believe in the sanctity and uniqueness of traditional marriage will continue to argue for its protection in a way that is respectful to the millions of American sons and daughters who are gay,” Rubio said in a statement. “It is also my hope that those who argue for the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex marriage will refrain from assailing the millions of Americans who disagree with them as bigots.”