(The Hill) — Senate negotiators expect to reach a deal on a bill to protect same-sex marriages in time to begin considering it on the floor next week, which would put it on a path to pass before the end of the month.
Republican negotiators caution they haven’t yet locked down 10 GOP votes to overcome an expected filibuster against the bill, but they say they are making good progress.
“We’re not there yet,” said one Senate GOP source familiar with the soft whip count. “I think we’ll get there, but we’re not there yet.”
Negotiators believe they will work out a compromise to protect the views of religious groups that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, which would then attract more Republican support for the legislation.
“I’m uncertain what exactly the schedule will be but [we] will start the process, next week, I’m told, but it will really be the following week” that the bill gets done, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said while leaving the Capitol Thursday.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the lead Democratic negotiator, confirmed the expectation is to “start the process at the end of next week.”
Negotiators still need to finalize the language of an amendment to modify the original bill crafted by Baldwin and Collins in order to address the concerns of some Republican senators who worry the legislation could create legal problems for religious groups that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.
But those final details are expected to get hammered out next week.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told The Hill Thursday that he expected the final legislative language to be worked out by next week, but expressed uncertainty about the timing of the bill.
He and other negotiators, including Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have kept in close touch with each other since returning to Washington after Labor Day to get the bill ready for the floor.
Senators have a small window to act before Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) moves to a short-term government funding measure, which needs to pass by Sept. 30 to avoid a shutdown.
Schumer on Wednesday said he does not want to add the marriage equality legislation to the funding stopgap, an idea Senate Democratic leadership floated Tuesday to force Republicans to commit to a path for getting the bill passed through the Senate.
GOP lawmakers — and Baldwin — balked at the idea of combining the two pieces of legislation, putting pressure on Republicans to commit to considering a standalone marriage equality bill on the Senate floor in the next few weeks, according to Senate Democratic aides.
The trial balloon about wrapping marriage equality legislation into a two-and-a-half-month government funding measure got lawmakers and media outlets focused on the marriage issue at the start of the week, putting a spotlight on whether GOP senators would block it.
Senators are still uncertain, however, which 10 Republicans will support the bill when it comes to the floor.
One prospect, retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said Thursday that he was not involved in the negotiations.
“I’m going to look at the bill when they produce it, but I’m not involved in any talks,” he said.
Another possible yes vote, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), said he is still deliberating over how to vote.
“I’m consulting with my constituents about it,” he said.
A Senate aide noted that Young was spotted on the floor Thursday afternoon chatting with a couple of the negotiators who are working on the final version.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), another Republican who has joined past bipartisan efforts, said he’s a “no” vote.
“It’s not necessary, I don’t think,” he said. “I personally am not planning on voting for it.”
Collins, Baldwin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Respect for Marriage Act in July to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and ensconce marriage equality into federal law.
The senators announced the legislation after conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas urged fellow justices to reconsider the court’s landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, when it ruled that the 14th Amendment’s protection of the right to marry applies to same-sex couples.
The House passed its version of the Respect for Marriage Act in July by a vote of 267 to 157, with 47 Republicans joining all Democrats in passing the measure.
Some Republicans, however, worry the legislation could create unintended legal consequences for religious groups that don’t support same-sex marriage.
“One of the things that has been raised is that an institution that doesn’t support gay marriage, say a Catholic charity helping orphans, that they would somehow face consequences such as funding cuts,” said a source familiar with the negotiations.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said his vote will depend on how the language to protect religious liberty is drafted.
“I have questions and concerns about religious liberty and that being included as part of the legislation, so we’re working on that,” he said, adding he is a possible “yes” vote, “depending on how it turns out.”
Republican lawmakers also want to make sure that the legislation isn’t drafted in a way that might somehow be interpreted as granting federal protection to polygamous marriages.
People familiar with the negotiations say that Republicans who are raising concerns over sections of the bill are, by and large, getting the changes they have requested, building momentum for final passage of the bill in the third full week of September.
Schumer on Wednesday guaranteed a vote on the bill “in the coming weeks.”