WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday took a crucial step toward passing landmark legislation to provide federal protections for same-sex marriages, as 12 Republicans joined Democrats to advance the Respect for Marriage Act, putting it on track to become law in the twilight of the Democratic-held Congress.
The 62-to-37 vote, which came only days after the midterm elections in which Democrats retained control of the Senate but lost the House to Republicans, was a rare and notable last gasp of bipartisanship by a lame duck Congress as lawmakers looked toward an era of political gridlock.
It also signaled a remarkable shift in American politics and culture, demonstrating how same-sex marriage, once a divisive issue, has been so widely accepted that a law to protect the rights of same-sex couples across the country could gain decisive, bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and the House. Last summer, 47 House Republicans joined Democrats to pass a version of the bill.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said that passage of the legislation, now expected after Thanksgiving, would be “one of the true highlights of the year for this body” and “one of the more significant accomplishments of this Senate to date.”
Speaking on the Senate floor, Mr. Schumer noted that his daughter and her wife were expecting a baby in the spring and that he wanted “them, and everyone in a loving relationship, to live without the fear that their rights could one day be stripped away.”
The measure still must win passage in the Senate, and then return to the House, which must clear it and send it to President Biden for his signature. But the legislation has overcome the biggest obstacle to its enactment: the 60-vote threshold in the 50-50 Senate.
Even as the test vote reflected bipartisan support for the measure, the vast majority of Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, voted against it. Thirty-seven Senate Republicans voted no, illustrating that, while polling has found that more than 70 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — support same-sex marriage, the issue remains politically untouchable for many G.O.P. lawmakers.
Understand the Same-Sex Marriage Bill
The Respect for Marriage Act, which would codify marriage equality, is on track to become law.
Mr. McConnell’s vote in opposition to the measure was all the more notable, coming after he chastised his party in the wake of a disappointing election cycle for behavior that he said had alienated independent and moderate voters.
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. The push to bring it up for a vote began over the summer, after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in his opinion in the ruling that overturned the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, which had established abortion rights, that the court also “should reconsider” precedents enshrining marriage equality and access to contraception.
Most Republicans balked at the vote, with many arguing that same-sex marriage rights were not under any immediate threat and that there was no urgency to pass legislation to safeguard them.
“I don’t know why we’re doing that bill; there’s no threat to its status in America,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said over the summer. “I know plenty of gay people in Florida that are pissed off about gas prices.”
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, dismissed the bill as a political stunt by Democrats to scare people into thinking “that somehow that decision by the Supreme Court is in jeopardy. I don’t believe it is.”
But on the Senate floor on Wednesday, as proponents spoke in sweeping terms about the importance of protecting what has been recognized as a fundamental right, no Republican stood to make a substantive case against doing so.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin and the lead sponsor of the legislation, said that gay people were “scared for good reason” about their rights being under threat, and that the same legal arguments the conservative-leaning Supreme Court had employed to reverse Roe could just as easily be applied to other cases.
“The Supreme Court should not be in a position to undermine the stability of families with the stroke of a pen,” said Ms. Baldwin, the first openly gay woman to be elected to the House and the Senate, noting that Justice Thomas in his dissent “was essentially providing an open invitation to litigators across the country to bring their cases to the Supreme Court.” Ms. Baldwin also noted that “cases often reach the Supreme Court faster than ever before.”
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and one of the 12 Republican supporters of the bill, added that even without an imminent threat, “there is still value in ensuring that our federal laws reflect that same-sex and interracial couples have the right to have their marriages recognized, regardless of where they live in this country.”
The successful vote on Wednesday marked an improbable outcome for a measure that had once been regarded as a mere messaging bill that had little chance of enactment given Republican opposition.
Democrats initially took up the measure as an election-year maneuver to show voters that they were doing everything possible to protect same-sex marriage rights in the face of new threats from a conservative Supreme Court.
Instead, it passed in the House in July with 47 Republicans joining Democrats in favor, and a bipartisan group in the Senate began talks on a version that could draw enough Republican backing in that chamber to move forward.
Momentum on the issue in the Senate, however, hit a snag in September when Democrats moved forward instead with the Inflation Reduction Act and Ms. Baldwin pressed Democratic leaders to delay a vote until after the elections. She told Mr. Schumer she felt more confident she could muster the 10 Republican votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster and move it through the evenly divided chamber if they waited.
That calculation irked some progressive Democrats, who said Republicans should have to answer to voters for their positions on the bill. Delaying it, for instance, spared Mr. Rubio 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.
Still, Ms. Baldwin’s gamble appeared to have paid off, with some Republican senators who last summer would not commit publicly to supporting the bill ultimately voting for it.
“They’re important religious liberty protections that have been negotiated in, and that’s why I supported it,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, told reporters Wednesday.
The vote by Mr. Romney, a Mormon, came a day after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it would back the legislation, a dramatic shift for an organization that historically has aggressively opposed gay rights.
Senate negotiators agreed to add language ensuring 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.
On Wednesday, Mr. Schumer acknowledged that bringing the legislation to the floor ahead of the midterm elections would have ended as a “show vote” that would have brought a political reckoning but no real change for the American people.
Leaving the floor, Mr. Schumer said the vote tally was “vindication that it was worth the wait.”
The Republican senators who ultimately voted for the measure on Wednesday were: Ms. Collins, Mr. Romney, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Rob Portman of Ohio, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Todd Young of Indiana.