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California and the West

House Opposes S.F. Partner Benefits

Congress: Democrats call vote to limit city law's scope an election-year attack on gays. Amendment's prospects in the Senate appear uncertain; White House is against it.

July 30, 1998|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday narrowly passed a proposal by a Northern California congressman that would strike a blow against San Francisco's use of its domestic partner benefits law.

Gay and lesbian couples are prime beneficiaries of the San Francisco law. The amendment targeting it--authored by Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor)--was condemned by Democratic lawmakers as part of a sustained GOP attack on homosexuality as fall elections near.

San Francisco's ordinance requires that city contractors offer the same benefits to the domestic partners of unmarried employees as those extended to married workers' spouses. Riggs opposes the law on moral grounds, and his amendment would prevent the city from applying it to contractors who receive funding that originates with the federal government.

In a vote that generally adhered to party lines, the measure passed the Republican-controlled House, 214 to 212. Among California's 52-member House delegation, all 29 Democrats voted against the amendment. They were joined by four Republicans--Brian Bilbray of San Diego, Tom Campbell of San Jose, Steve Horn of Long Beach and Jerry Lewis of Redlands; the other 19 GOP members voted for it.

Despite its passage as part of an appropriations bill that funds federal housing and veterans programs, the amendment faces uphill prospects in the Senate, where foes will work to keep it out of the measure ultimately sent to President Clinton. Riggs' proposal is vehemently opposed by the White House.

Riggs, in defending his amendment during Wednesday's floor debate, said, "It is wrong to elevate a domestic relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual, to the same status as the sacred union, marriage, between a man and a woman."

The amendment appeared headed for defeat as speaker after speaker--including some Republicans--condemned it. Riggs, in fact, was the lone lawmaker to speak out in favor of the measure.

Even Riggs, who is not seeking reelection to his seat, was surprised by the result. "I was unexpectedly pleased by the outcome," he said.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) castigated Riggs' proposal as mean-spirited and politically motivated. "It must be an election year when the Republican leadership in Congress is once again looking for a group of Americans to single out for discriminatory treatment," she said.

But Riggs' measure also was criticized by lawmakers who saw the issue as improper federal government intrusion in local affairs, not homosexuality.

In advance of the vote, Horn joined Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in circulating a letter calling the proposal an "irresponsible and draconian attack" on San Francisco's independence.

"The real impact of this amendment stretches far beyond the borders of any particular city," the lawmakers said. "The issue is the right of any municipality in America to consider and pass ordinances without federal intervention."

A number of speakers made the same argument during floor debate Wednesday, including Lewis.

Riggs had narrowed the scope of his measure recently in hopes of winning support. He had originally sought to cut off all federal housing funds from San Francisco as long as it had the domestic partner legislation on the books.

Riggs said he introduced the measure after learning that organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army had been pressured by the city to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees, although the policy was contrary to the groups' beliefs.

While Catholic Charities came to an agreement with the city, the Salvation Army has refused to comply with the act, making it ineligible to receive city contracts.

San Francisco officials credit the law, enacted in June 1997, with encouraging more than 1,800 companies to offer benefits to domestic partners. An additional 350 companies have said they do not intend to comply.

City officials have blasted Riggs for interfering with their use of the domestic partners law. "The machinery of the federal government is at its best when it's used to end bigotry and discrimination," San Francisco Deputy City Atty. Marc Slavin said in an interview. "This is an example of using the federal government to promote bigotry and discrimination."

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