- Mitch McConnell never publicly offered his position on a bill to protect same-sex marriage.
- “To this day, I don’t really know how he feels about it,” said a GOP senator who voted for the bill.
- His silence, reflecting the party’s shifting views on the issue, gave Republicans the space to vote for it.
After four months of legislative debate, the Respect for Marriage Act is destined to be signed into law once an amended version of the bill passes the House later this week.
And it will have happened without Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — the most powerful federally-elected Republican in America — ever publicly revealing his thoughts on the legislation, aside from his quiet vote against it last week.
“To this day, I don’t really know how he feels about it, other than just knowing how he ultimately voted,” Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, a supporter of the bill, told Insider at the Capitol.
The bill, designed to protect same-sex and interracial marriage, requires states to recognize marriages performed in other states and repeals the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” that defined marriage as solely between a man and woman. It received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, where 12 Republicans broke ranks to support an amended version of the legislation.
McConnell’s silence on the bill was conspicuous; he was asked publicly about it several times during weekly press conferences, and could have offered his thoughts during his near-daily morning addresses on the floor of the Senate.
The Respect for Marriage Act now stands out as the only major bipartisan initiative to clear the chamber without McConnell’s vote. Whether it was the bipartisan infrastructure law, the CHIPS and Science Act, the PACT Act, a new package of gun control legislation, efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act, or even a 2021 vote to raise the debt limit, McConnell endorsed and spoke about the effort each time.
And McConnell may have had the power to stop the bill, if he so desired. In a Senate where 60 votes are required to pass most legislation, Democrats needed to gain the support of at least 10 sympathetic Republicans to get it across the finish line.
There’s also his party’s historic opposition to same-sex marriage, a history in which he’s played a central role. In 2015, he was one of just six Republican senators to sign on to an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to reject same-sex marriage as it debated the Obergefell v. Hodges case.
While some left-leaning websites and even comedian Jimmy Kimmel wryly pointed out that McConnell had voted against his own interracial marriage to Elaine Chao, the former Secretary of Transportation, there’s a deeper reality underpinning McConnell’s political positioning on the issue.
Seven years after the Obergefell decision, same-sex marriage is now widely accepted and supported in the United States, including among 55% of Republicans, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. And in interviews with Insider earlier this year, GOP senators were largely dismissive of the idea that overturning Obergefell either was possible or desirable. But vocal portions of the party’s conservative base are still opposed to the idea, and many Republicans still can’t afford to ignore those voters’ preferences.
Several Republican senators confirmed to Insider that McConnell didn’t whip his caucus in either direction, allowing for a “vote of conscience” in which senators were free to make their own decisions.
And he gave the three Republican senators who helped amend the House-passed bill the space they needed to work with Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema — the only two LGBTQ members of the Senate — and convince other Republicans to support the bill.
“He is not in the habit of discouraging people who try to get things done,” Sen. Rob Portman, who worked with fellow Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina on amendments to the bill, told Insider.
McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story.
‘The leader has to look at his conference’
After the House passed the original version of the Respect for Marriage Act in July with a surprisingly high number of Republican votes, attention immediately turned to the US Senate.
That’s when McConnell’s studied silence began.
“I’m not going to make an observation about that until the issue is actually brought up in the Senate,” McConnell initially told reporters just days after House passage in July.
But his “observation” never came, despite repeated questions from reporters about it over those four months — including when a series of procedural votes on the measure had already begun in late November.
“I’ve been voting, and I’ll be voting later this afternoon,” he said last week when specifically asked to offer his position on the bill.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a supporter of the bill, dismissed the notion that McConnell’s silence was out of the ordinary when asked by Insider.
“There are very few times when Leader McConnell has indicated what he’s going to do,” said Romney. “Most bills, he doesn’t indicate what he wants to do.”
But Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of Republican leadership who voted for the bill, told Insider that she had “respect” for McConnell’s hands-off approach to the matter, noting that Republicans were “divided as a conference.”
“I obviously had a different opinion than McConnell did on the overall vote,” she said. “But I listened to Iowans, and Iowa was the fourth state in the nation to recognize same-sex marriage.”
“You know, the leader has to look at his conference,” Tillis told Insider, referencing his own time as the Speaker of the North Carolina House. “He’s got a much more complex thought process that he has to run than I do as a rank-and-file member.”
McConnell has long been cognizant of the perils of alienating mainstream voters. In a moment of rare candor in front of reporters last month on the eve of his re-election as Republican leader, he bemoaned his party’s performance in the recent midterm elections, saying the perception of “chaos, negativity, excessive attacks” had “frightened independent and moderate Republican voters.”
Yet most of his conference ultimately opposed the bill, and a leader has to be responsive to his members.
Senators offered differing views on whether McConnell could have stopped the bill, if that had been his desire.
“Leaders have significant power to persuade their caucus,” observed Baldwin, saying McConnell rarely declined to whip his members. “There was considerable leeway given to Senators Collins, Portman, and Tillis to proceed as they did.”
She also noted that Republican leadership hadn’t instructed their caucus how to vote on moving the bill, as they typically do via a placard placed on a desk on the Republican side of the Senate chamber.
“On cloture, the only placard on the Republican side was ‘Collins, Portman and Tillis recommend a Yes on cloture,'” she told Insider. “There was no leader recommendation.”
But Tillis argued that McConnell has long taken an “even-handed” approach with his members, allowing them to forge bipartisan deals wherever possible.
Nonetheless, McConnell has held Republican votes hostage before; over the summer as the Senate debated the CHIPS bill, he made clear that there would be no bipartisan deal as long as Democrats were working on a party-line social spending bill.
There’s also the matter of conservative backlash. In the two weeks between the first procedural vote and final passage of the legislation, Lummis in particular faced intense criticism from conservatives for her procedural vote, which she spoke on the floor about ahead of a final vote on the bill.
That may have limited the number of Republicans who were willing to support the bill in the end.
“Even right now, today, it’s been brutally painful,” Lummis told Insider. “So I could certainly understand if someone saw what I went through and chose to spare themselves.”
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a conservative opponent of the bill, told Insider that “of course” he wished McConnell had taken a vocal position on the bill. “I think leadership should lead,” he said.
The four month debate finally concluded last Tuesday, when the Senate held a series of votes on Republican-proposed amendments to the bill. As the vote on final passage began, McConnell could be seen sitting alongside Sinema at the front of the chamber, apparently engaged in close conversation. Tillis told Insider that even he didn’t know how McConnell would ultimately vote.
Then, Ernst walked over to greet the pair. As Sinema stood up to embrace the Iowa Republican, McConnell rose from his seat and voted no.