POLITICO By JAKE SHERMAN and ANNA PALMER | 3/30/12 4:38 AM EDT
Just a few years ago, House Republicans were trying to etch their opposition of gay marriage into the Constitution.
Now? They’re almost silent.
It’s been one of the swiftest shifts in ideology and strategy for Republicans, as they’ve come nearly full circle on same-sex politics. What was once a front-and-center issue for rank-and-file Republicans — the subject of many hotly worded House and Senate floor speeches — is virtually a dead issue, as Republicans in Congress don’t care to have gay marriage litigated in the Capitol.
Even more than that, Republican leadership has evolved, too. It has quietly worked behind the scenes to kill amendments that reaffirm opposition to same-sex unions, several sources told POLITICO.
It’s not like the GOP has become a bastion of progressiveness on gay rights, but there has been an evolution in the political approach — and an acknowledgment of a cultural shift in the country. Same-sex relationships are more prominent and accepted. There are more gay public figures — including politicians — and it’s likely that many Washington Republicans have gay friends and coworkers. Just as important — there’s also a libertarian streak of acceptance on people’s sexuality coursing through the House Republican Conference.
“In one decade, what’s shocking on TV is accepted as commonplace in the other,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a veteran of the culture wars of the 1990s. “It’s the same with sexual mores all over that if you look at campuses and universities, they have a lot of gay pride clubs and so there has been a deliberate and effective outreach to the younger generation about being more accepting of same-sex relationships.”
But there’s also a political strategy at work: The economy has displaced moral issues in today’s politics. Ask most House Republicans today if they have deep convictions about gay relationships, and it hardly registers.
“I personally have deep convictions about my children having a financially stable country that they can live in,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “I want my daughters to have the opportunities that I had, and that’s what concerns me. That’s what keeps me up awake at night, not worrying about who’s sleeping with who.”
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a 32-year veteran of Congress, never a man of many words, simply said, “I don’t hear it discussed much.”
Even die-hard social conservatives like Texas Republican Louie Gohmert aren’t digging in.
“That’s not something we’re focused on now,” Gohmert said.
Social issues haven’t fully escaped the party. They’ve worked vociferously to ensure the federal government doesn’t spend money on Planned Parenthood and talked for weeks about the contraception mandate and religious liberty.
But there’s no question that for Republicans, the politics of gay rights has dramatically changed. In 1994, lawmakers say, there was “sticker shock” when President Bill Clinton created “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the military. They dashed to the House floor to rail on what they perceived as his immorality.
“It’s been realized that back in ’94, you could jump up on the House floor and pound your chest about [gay issues], and secure a good voter intensity, which you can’t do anymore,” Kingston said, describing the shifting dynamics of the issue.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released earlier this month showed a 9 percent increase in support for gay marriage among Republicans to 31 percent. Support among 18-to-34-year-olds was nearly 70 percent, according to a 2011 Washington Post/ABC News poll.
The Senate also has undergone a shift. When Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) held the first hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act since it became law, few Republicans showed up and those who were there didn’t use it as an opportunity for fire-and-brimstone speeches on same-sex unions.
National party operatives have taken notice. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions all did fundraisers in the 2010 cycle with the national gay and lesbian GOP grass-roots organization, Log Cabin Republicans.
The group’s Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper said that while the three party leaders got flak for doing the events, they stood their ground.
“Twenty years ago they would have thrown us under the bus,” Cooper said. The group recently hosted a 40th birthday fundraiser for Priebus.
Even among the most conservative ranks there has been some softening. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) — who holds a 93 percent lifetime score with the American Conservative Union — recently attended a Log Cabin Republican meeting in Houston. Poe’s office said his “views on same-sex marriage have not changed, however, he found that there were plenty of things they did agree on and he really enjoyed listening to what they had to say.”
Even liberal champions of gay rights — like Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) see the political evolution.
“Republicans see an issue that was a good wedge issue no longer is and will be a losing issue in the future,” Nadler told POLITICO. “They can’t just walk away from it; their base will get mad at them. They’re slowly walking away from it because it’s an increasingly losing issue.”
At Third Way, the prominent centrist think tank has undertaken a bipartisan “Commitment Campaign” pushing gay marriage. The group has made it easier for lawmakers to shift views on the issue, laying out steps for elected officials to change their position.
Leadership, too, has played a role. At the top levels of House Republican leadership, aides have tried to “quell” legislative proposals on the sanctity of marriage.
It’s not that Republicans have completely given up on the issue.
Human Rights Campaign’s Michael Cole-Schwartz said that while there has been a shift, “the House Republican leadership has not been friendly to the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community.”
“Substantively there has not been a lot of progress getting made even if the rhetoric has toned down a bit,” Cole-Schwartz said.
Much to the chagrin of many Democrats, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is spending millions of dollars on defending DOMA. But gay-rights activists said the decision to keep it in the court and not force a floor vote was illustrative of GOP leadership’s feelings on the issue.
“A lot of moderate Democrats would be scared to vote on DOMA,” Third Way’s Lanae Erickson said. “There was no question House Republicans were going to defend DOMA … but they made it as low profile as humanly possible.”
Some members have tried to introduce bills to cut back on same-sex rights, but they’ve been few and far between.
The House passed an amendment that prohibited chaplains from performing same-sex marriages on Navy bases. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) introduced the Marriage Protection Act of 2011, which banned federal courts from hearing same-sex marriage cases, instead kicking them to states. But even he said he didn’t expect anything to be done at the federal level.
”I still feel very strongly about that because I think it has a great deal to do with the stability of the whole country,” Burton said. “I don’t know that people’s opinions have changed that much, but what I think has happened is that people realize the dire straits this country has been in and they think we better deal with that before we get back to the social issues.”
Most Republicans maintain that the commitment is still there — but the time is not right.
“I don’t think there is any less commitment on the part of conservatives and Republicans to protect traditional America values,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I think that’s still strong, but I also understand that a lot of families across the [country] are very nervous and concerned about our fiscal and economic situation.”
Then there are those Republicans who have been fighting for gay rights for decades — people like Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Ros-Lehtinen, who has a transgender son named Rodrigo, was the first Republican to co-sponsor the repeal of DOMA.
“Also,” she wrote in an email to POLITICO, “the younger generation is not as fixated on many social issues, as important as they are to other folks. Marriage equality is an issue that is evolving in people’s minds and hearts. As with many controversial issues, the passage of time makes us more comfortable with change.”