Mr. Obama said the memo is just the beginning, and he urged Congress to pass a bill mandating the extension of all benefits to domestic partners.
The debate behind HR 2517, is not new, but because of a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate the bill is expected to enjoy more support than in past years.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D.-Wisc.) is the author of the “Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2009.” During a subcommittee hearing last week, she lobbied for its passage from a very personal point of view.
“I appear before you today not only as the lead author of this legislation but also as a lesbian federal employee who has been in a committed relationship with my partner Lauren for over 13 years,” said Baldwin. She is the first non-incumbent, openly gay person to serve in Congress.
Baldwin said that Mr. Obama’s attention to this issue is important, but she said Congress should also take immediate action.
“Although the memo is an important step in providing same-sex partners of federal employees with benefits already available to spouses of heterosexual employees,” said Baldwin, “it falls short of providing the full range of benefits.”
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the ranking Republican on the panel, is the only member so far who has voiced opposition to HR 2517.
“Marriage by another name is of no concern to me and… the majority of Americans,” said Chaffetz. “At the same time I want to be respectful of Americans and their right to choose.”
Rep. Chaffetz voiced his concern to Rep. Baldwin that the bill’s language discriminates against heterosexual domestic partners.
“The option exists for opposite-sex couples to marry in every state of the union,” said Baldwin to counter Chaffetz.
“That opportunity does not exist for same-sex partners. We need to come up with another option for fringe benefits,” said Baldwin.
John Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, says HR 2517 gives him the tools he needs to hire from the widest pool of qualified workers for jobs he has trouble filling right now.
“In each of these areas we are attempting to get out there with sharp elbows and compete with the private sector so we can provide critical services,” said Berry. “This will be just one extra tool that will allow us to compete.”
Dr. Frank Page, the 2006 president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the only witness speaking in opposition to HR 2517, says he’s troubled by the bill’s intent.
“This is not a matter about recruitment. This is about a social agenda,” said Dr. Page.
“The biggest issue here is that the government is supporting the institution of marriage rather than changing it to attract maybe a few additional employees.”
The House Federal Workforce Subcommittee may take up the measure prior to the August recess in a few weeks or in early September.