Obama to extend some benefits to same-sex partners
Reacting to a rising tide of anger from gay and lesbian supporters at a series of slights and deferred promises, President Obama will tomorrow extend some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
The move, which begins to mirror the policy of many large corporations, will have an immediate effect for many workers, but it is a deeply reactive response to a core Democratic group whose concerns have been festering for six months. The presidential memorandum -- scheduled for signing tomorrow at 5:45 p.m., may in the short term, give Joe Biden something positive to say at a June 25 fundraiser that has seen prominent guests drop out, a host sharply attack the administration, and which is expected to be marked by protests.
However, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from extending health and retirement benefits to same-sex couples, so the benefits are more likely to be marginal -- like relocation assistance.
The order is one of several lower-profile moves the administration had promised gay groups this month, but appears to have been announced this evening to stem rising protest.
"President Obama will be signing a presidential memorandum tomorrow to provide benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees," an administration official said.
The silence on gay rights in the early days of the administration have pushed many gay rights leaders toward demands that Obama go beyond smaller-bore issues toward the heavier political lifts of ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act and supporting same-sex marriage. And they're shifting toward a more confrontational strategy, which could include a march on Washington later this year.
The executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a large state-based gay rights group, Alan Van Capelle, greeted today's announcement sarcastically.
"Welcome to 1999," he told POLITICO. "How revolutionary of the White House to give benefits to same-sex couples, when two-thirds of conservative Wall Street are already doing it. What an achievement."
"It's just one of the things that should have been done in January," Van Capelle, who was among those taking his name off the Biden event, said, calling for a "comprehensive strategy." "If the President makes the announcement tomorrow, it will still fall short of what LGBT people are expecting from this administration."
Richard Socarides, a gay former Clinton aide, called a plan to extend benefits "terrific."
But Obama "will have to address 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and the [Justice Department motion supporting the Defense of Marriage Act] at this point to give it any real meaning. People want to know - his gay supporters want to know - why has this gone so wrong."
UPDATE: This post has been updated to note that health benefits appear not to be among those to be extended, to add comments, and to clarify that the document is formally a presidential memorandum, not an executive order.
UPDATE, Take II:
President Obama's plan is drawing a lukewarm reaction this morning, as it becomes clear that -- contrary to some early reports -- the benefits can't include access for same-sex partners to health or retirement plans.
The Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama vowed during the campaign to repeal, prohibits the federal government from extending those benefits, so today's announcement appears likely to be limited to meaningful, but less sweeping, changes for gay and lesbian federal workers.
"Are they kidding us? Domestic Partnership benefits WITHOUT health insurance because of DOMA? What kind of reality do they live in?" gay fundraiser and activist David Mixner emailed me this morning. "It is like rubbing salt in the wound. I am glad that some barriers will be lifted for Federal Employees but what is the most important benefit needed....health insurance! Good god."
Even some congressional Democrats appear unimpressed by the move. Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York emailed out this lukewarm statement this morning:
President Obama’s decision displays the administration’s commitment to ensuring that certain basic rights and privileges are extended to all Americans.
While encouraging, this measure only grants same-sex couples benefits that have been provided by corporations for years and fails to reverse the administration's troubling refusal to fully recognize same-sex couples under the law and to allow lesbian gay bisexual trangender Americans to serve openly in the military.
That said, I am still pleased to say that the unacceptable reality of offering fewer benefits to same-sex couples is about to change."