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This GOP strategist is calling on Republican senators to safeguard same-sex marriage


When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it raised fears that marriage equality could be next to fall. In his concurring opinion on the abortion ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should also reconsider the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. And now, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are working to codify marriage equality rights into law.

GOP strategist John Feehery has been working to drum up support for the bill among Senate Republicans, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JOHN FEEHERY: Great to be with you.

MCCAMMON: So first of all, what is known as the Respect for Marriage Act passed the House with the support of 47 Republicans. As you know, it is now making its way through Congress, and a Senate vote is expected in the coming weeks. It needs 10 Republican senators to pass. So do you think there are 10 Republicans in the Senate who are in favor of this?

FEEHERY: I think there are more than 10, but I don't think - many of these members don't necessarily want to be the 10th. So they're kind of waiting to see in the negotiating potential amendments to see if they have some wiggle room. But I think there are people - at least 10 Republicans who want to vote for this in the Senate.

MCCAMMON: What is the hesitancy about? I mean, a Gallup poll in 2021 found that 55% of registered Republicans now support same-sex marriage. Do you think Senate Republicans are taking that into account?

FEEHERY: I think that they are, and I think that's why they're having such a hard time. There's a vocal minority amongst the Republican base that doesn't want this to happen. But I do think that ultimately, you know, you don't want to take away the ability for people to get married once you gave them that ability. And I think the politics, as you point out, are pretty good. Most Republicans are focused on many other issues and will not vote against any Republican who votes for this bill.

MCCAMMON: Some Republicans say they're concerned about the Respect for Marriage Act. They're worried it will undermine protections for religious liberties. Someone might say, well, if you're worried about - if your religion is opposed to same-sex marriage, then, you know, don't be in one. What specifically, though, are they worried about here?

FEEHERY: Well, I think what they're worried about - and I think there's some valid worries here - that a church will be sued if they refuse to perform a same-sex marriage in their church. And I think there are some concerns there. And I think that - you know, or they'll be, you know, hounded and, you know, legally hounded if they don't kind of bend to the will of folks who want same-sex marriage. And I think that there's ways to reach an accommodation on that. I think that's what they're trying to figure out with this amendment process. Ultimately, I think that if there's an accommodation that can be made that protects the ability of churches to practice their religion freely but also allows people legally to get into binding contracts that are recognized in all 50 states, you know, we can find that way to achieve both ends. And I think that's what they're trying to do through this legislative process.

MCCAMMON: The bill's sponsors, of course, say that the Respect for Marriage Act will not undermine protections for religious liberties, and they're trying to make sure that the bill's language reflects that. Are you hearing from any Republican senators about whether that's settling their objections?

FEEHERY: I've heard from senators, at least through the media, that they need some additional guarantees; that if they have those protections, that's something that can help them make that vote. This is not one of the top issues out there. I don't think it's going to be a huge political victory for Joe Biden. I don't think it's going to change the trajectory of this election. But I think ultimately, it can be the right thing to do.

MCCAMMON: I just want to ask you before I let you go about one other issue. As you know, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham proposed a nationwide 15-week abortion ban yesterday. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have gotten behind it, too. But polling shows that a majority of Americans disagree with overturning Roe v. Wade. How will that proposal affect voters heading to the polls this November?

FEEHERY: I've said in the past that, you know, Republicans need to get their act together on abortion because it's a big issue. So I do think that the Lindsey Graham bill is a middle ground compared to where some of the other states have been going, where there have been no exceptions for rape and incest or life of the mother, and those positions are not politically sustainable. And so I think Lindsey is making a good-faith effort to lay out a marker that that could be somewhat seen as a middle ground, more of a middle ground. Although if you're a pro-choice activist, you probably don't think it's much of a middle ground.

MCCAMMON: Do you wish that Senator Graham had waited until after the midterms to propose this?

FEEHERY: You know, I don't because I think it starts the process of bringing some clarity to the Republican position, which I thought was chaotic and all over the place. And it gives Republicans a place to point to. You know, I'm in the minority on this. I mean, ultimately, you know, we had an election that we were going to clearly, you know, win. And then Dobbs came in and kind of complicated things. And, you know, it's still - I'm still not completely clear how this is all going to shake out. I mean, I'm very interested to see how it shakes out, to be honest with you.

MCCAMMON: GOP strategist John Feehery, thanks so much for your time.

FEEHERY: All right. No problem. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.