WASHINGTON — The Senate was on track on Tuesday to pass landmark legislation to mandate federal recognition for same-sex marriages, in a rare last gasp of bipartisanship by a lame-duck Congress before Democrats lose their unified control of Capitol Hill.
The bill’s expected passage would send it back to the House, where it would need final approval to clear Congress and be sent to President Biden for his signature. But its embrace in the Senate, where proponents had a breakthrough this month in drawing a dozen Republican supporters, gave it the momentum required to become law.
The bill would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, had worked quietly to build sufficient Republican support in the Senate since the summer, when 47 House Republicans joined Democrats in favor of the measure.
Their efforts paid off two weeks ago, when the senators agreed on a revised version that answered concerns among some Republicans that the measure would trample on the religious freedom of institutions that refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. That allowed the bill to clear its biggest hurdle in the Senate, drawing a filibuster-proof majority that effectively assured its enactment.
The test vote represented a significant shift in American politics and culture in which same-sex marriage, once considered a divisive political issue, has become so widely accepted by members of both parties that a bill to protect it is able to attract decisive, bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and the House.
Understand the Same-Sex Marriage Rights Bill
The Respect for Marriage Act would codify marriage equality.
Still, a vast majority of Republicans voted against moving forward with the bill, underscoring how the party has continued to cater to religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage long after large majorities of the American public have come to support it.
After the bill passed the House, momentum on legislation flagged in September after Senate Democrats moved forward instead with the Inflation Reduction Act and put the marriage bill on hold until after the midterm elections, bowing to the request of Ms. Baldwin, who believed she would have more success attracting votes from Republicans after the balloting.
That calculation rankled some progressive Democrats, who said Republicans should have to answer to voters for their positions on the bill. Delaying it, for instance, spared Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, both of whom were up for re-election this year, a tough choice between embracing a measure that could anger their conservative base and opposing it, potentially alienating independent and moderate voters.
But Ms. Baldwin’s calculation paid off; a dozen Republicans joined Democrats to advance the measure.
The bill would not require any state to allow same-sex couples to marry. But it would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.
During bipartisan negotiations in the Senate, lawmakers added language to ensure that churches, universities and other nonprofit religious organizations could not lose tax-exempt status or other benefits for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages and could not be required to provide services for the celebration of any marriage. They also added language to make clear that the bill does not require or authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages.
The legislative push began over the summer, after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in his opinion in the ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established a constitutional right to abortion, that the court also “should reconsider” precedents enshrining marriage equality and access to contraception.