Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), at a news conference in Washington,… (Luis Alvarez, AP )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama has endorsed a new bill by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, another step in what the president has termed his "evolving" views on same-sex marriage.
"The president has long called for a legislative repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which continues to have a real impact on the lives of real people — our families, friends and neighbors," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. "He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act."
Opponents of same-sex marriage said they were disappointed, but not surprised. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples and allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.
"There is zero chance that Congress is going to repeal [the law] anytime soon, so this is primarily political theatrics on President Obama's part," said Maggie Gallagher, chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group that opposes gay marriage.
The announcement is one of the president's bolder moves regarding gay marriage. In the past, he has voiced support for civil unions for gay couples, but stopped short of supporting same-sex marriage.
Last year, Obama supported the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Earlier this year, the administration announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, though the administration said it would continue to enforce the law unless it was repealed. But Obama subsequently supported the use of discretion by immigration officials in cases of married same-sex couples in which one spouse is undocumented.
Advocates of the repeal were elated at the news.
"It is rare that a White House endorses a bill that has yet to pass first in either the Senate or the House," Rick Jacobs, chairman of the gay rights advocacy group Courage Campaign, said in a statement. "His support makes clear to all Americans that the Defense of Marriage Act has no place in our society."
Despite Obama's support, the bill faces long odds. With 27 co-sponsors, Feinstein has just fewer than half the votes for a filibuster-proof majority. And in the Republican-controlled House, Speaker John A. Boehner has taken on the responsibility of defending the act in court since the administration bowed out.
Feinstein plans to make the case that the law should be repealed because the issue should be left up to the states.
"Family law has traditionally been the preserve of state law. The single exception is the Defense of Marriage Act," she said, speaking to reporters before Obama's announcement.
"This is not a cause which we are going to drop," Feinstein said. "We are not faint hearts about this."
Supporters of the Defense of Marriage Act disagreed with her argument.
"The federal government doesn't get to tell the states what their laws will be," Gallagher said. "And the states don't get to decide for Congress what Congress' laws should be."