Reporting from Washington — House Republican leaders voted Wednesday to launch what could be a lengthy legal battle against granting federal rights and benefits to same-sex couples, deciding to join a series of pending court battles to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Obama administration has decided to no longer defend as constitutional.
A five-member panel convened by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) directed the House counsel to initiate a legal defense of the 15-year-old law. Democrats on the panel, who are a minority, opposed the move.
"This action by the House will ensure that this law's constitutionality is decided by the courts, rather than by the president unilaterally," Boehner said in a statement.
Boehner has quietly pursued the issue but refrained from making it more visible on the House floor. Though the issue is important to the conservative flank in the House, other GOP lawmakers prefer to focus on economic issues.
Democrats said the legal fight could be long and costly, continuing for years until one of several pending cases makes its way to the Supreme Court.
"I voted against this decision," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip. "I believe that the administration is correct in concluding that DOMA is unconstitutional and discriminatory." Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also criticized Republicans.
President Obama decided last month that his administration would no longer defend the law, saying the section that defines marriage as between a man and a woman violates the Constitution.
Five states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, and the administration's action does not affect the many states that do not.
The administration said it would continue to enforce the law -- including its denial of benefits -- until the courts rule whether it is constitutional.
The law was crafted during the Clinton administration largely to prevent same-sex marriages that are recognized in one state from being binding nationwide, as is done with heterosexual marriages.
"Apparently, the Republicans' jobs plan is a full employment project for right-wing lawyers bent on defending discrimination," said Joe Solmonese, president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "With today's vote, Speaker Boehner has made clear that an anti-equality agenda trumps helping American families in tough economic times, including loving and committed couples who are legally married in their states."