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Senate Democrats Leap Into the Debate Over Gay Rights

After President Barack Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage, several Senate Democrats have begun urging action on other gay rights issues.

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and 16 other Senate Democrats today wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, renewing their request to hold green card applications in abeyance for binational gay couples while the Defense of Marriage Act is being challenged in the courts and legislation is pending in Congress to overturn it.

The move would allow married binational gay and lesbian couples to remain together in the United States without forcing the foreign spouse to run afoul of immigration law. Nine states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow gay marriage, according to the group Freedom to Marry.

“We write to you to reiterate our request that the Administration provide relief for lesbian and gay families in which one spouse is not a U.S. citizen during this time of legal uncertainty,” the letter said.

The letter also noted that the request comes as “marriage equality rights are being extended to more and more citizens of this country.”

Kerry has a constituent in a same-sex marriage that faces deportation to Pakistan. He wrote a letter on her behalf in March to DHS, according to the Salem News.

Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, but according to DOMA, enacted in 1996, the federal government cannot recognize such marriages and therefore cannot approve green card petitions for same-sex couples. The law defines marriage as between one man and one woman and says states do not have to recognize gay marriages authorized by other states.

Last year, Obama announced the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA against court cases that question its constitutionality.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also sought to capitalize on the momentum when he announced today that the committee would hold a hearing in June to examine employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. The hearing also will deal with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“Every American deserves an equal opportunity to earn a good living, judged by their talent, ability and qualifications, free from discrimination,” Harkin said in the announcement. “Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is reprehensible and has no place in our nation.”

“I am hopeful that, working together, we will reach a point where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons enjoy the same rights and protections, and full equality, as all our fellow Americans,” Harkin continued.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today also indicated that he would vote for a gay marriage ballot measure, should it come up in Nevada.

“I would follow my grandchildren and my children,” Reid said at a press conference today.

In a statement released Wednesday evening backing Obama’s decision, Reid said that his personal view is that marriage is between a man and a woman but that “in a civil society, I believe that people should be able to marry whomever they want, and it’s no business of mine if two men or two women want to get married. The idea that allowing two loving, committed people to marry would have any impact on my life, or on my family’s life, always struck me as absurd.” He added that the issue should be left to the states.

Reid said today that gay marriage would likely be part of the Democratic platform at this summer’s Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. “The president is in favor of it. I’m sure it will be,” Reid said.

Despite the eagerness with which many Democrats have embraced the president’s announcement, Obama’s move could put pressure on moderate Democrats from states where gay marriage is still controversial.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said it remains to be seen what the political affect will be on vulnerable Democrats.

“I think what most people have said is correct — you can’t tell the political purpose,” said Schumer, who is head of the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications arm. “This is an issue that has been evolving and evolving rather quickly, and anyone who can say on Oct. 1 this will be the effect is smarter than me.”

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