As the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up its weeks-long debate over comprehensive immigration reform late Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) did a rare and remarkable thing: He forced four Democrats who generally support gay rights to publicly acknowledge they would vote against a controversial gay rights measure.
In the backslapping world of the U.S. Senate, in which members of the same party typically look out for one another's political interests, that ain't how it usually works.
"It's courageous," former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank tells Seven Days. "The hardest thing to do is to have to break with some of your friends."
The issue at hand, as we touched on briefly in this week's Fair Game, was a pair of amendments Leahy authored that would extend to gay Americans the right to request green cards for their foreign-born partners.
Leahy's been pushing the idea for a decade — first as a stand-alone bill called the "Uniting American Families Act." When its provisions weren't included in the comprehensive immigration bill drafted by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight," Leahy filed two amendments to the bill that would accomplish the same.
But the pushback from Senate Republicans was fierce — and even Democratic members of the Gang of Eight warned that if offered and accepted, Leahy's amendments could topple the delicate balance of immigration reform yet again. Those Democrats were so nervous Leahy would force a vote on the matter, they asked the White House to intervene — which it did Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
"The real question was, 'Will Leahy buck the pressure and offer this?' Not even will he call for a vote, but will he offer it?" says Heather Cronk, co-director of the LGBT social justice group GetEqual, who attended Tuesday's mark-up.
Sure enough, after dispensing with nearly 300 other amendments to the immigration bill, the Judiciary Committee chairman called up one last amendment late Tuesday: his own.
"I don't want to be the senator who asks Americans to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country," Leahy said. "Discriminating against a segment of Americans because of who they love is a travesty and is ripping many American families apart."
Then, without indicating whether he would force a vote on it, the senator from Vermont said, "I know this issue is important to many who serve on this committee. Before I speak further, I'd like to hear from other members — especially from those who drafted this bill — who, for whatever reason, decided not to remove discrimination from our current immigration system in their legislative proposal."
Translation: If you're against this, speak up now and explain yourself. I won't let you quietly dodge the issue.
Four Democrats did.