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Nelson under pressure on gay marriage

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Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2013 at 09:30 AM
TAMPA -

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is getting pressure from the liberal side of his party as the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, and one of the few in the Senate, who opposes gay marriage.

Nelson is not the only Florida standout on the issue.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, a longtime supporter of gay rights, is the only Florida Republican in Congress who supports repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as male-female only.

And while Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, stands with most congressional Republicans in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, former Gov. Jeb Bush, also a possible presidential candidate for 2016, appears to be trying to bridge the split over the question in the Republican Party.

In recent interviews, Bush has called for the issue to be decided by states, not the federal government.

A Bush spokeswoman couldn’t say whether that meant Bush would favor repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

But Bush has called for Republicans to discuss the issue with “a different tone … recognizing that there is more than one point of view, and we should talk about it in a way that is not judgmental.”

Nelson’s stance has become conspicuous recently as congressional Democrats have moved rapidly toward favoring what supporters call “marriage equality.”

In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act passed overwhelmingly, 85-14, in the Senate, with Democrats, including former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, in favor, and 342-67 in the House. The act was signed by President Bill Clinton.

But as of Tuesday, the Huffington Post website identified only 10 Senate Democrats, including Nelson, who still oppose overturning the marriage act and noted the number was decreasing. One of those 10, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, has since announced she’s in favor.

Meanwhile, all nine Democratic Florida House members, along with Ros-Lehtinen, have signed or said they support a “friend of the court” brief in the current U.S. Supreme Court case urging the court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a statement via email from a media spokesman Friday, Nelson said, “I’ve always stood up for civil rights and I support civil unions, but I believe the institution of marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Marriage equality backers say the issue is important because if the Supreme Court overrules the Defense of Marriage Act, it could become a state-by-state issue.

Florida Democrats muted criticism of Nelson, the state’s senior elected Democrat and the only one holding statewide office. But some expressed disappointment.

“We’ve been urging people to call him. We know he has been on the right side of other civil rights issues and we hope he’ll get on the right side of this one,” said Susan Smith of Odessa, president of the state party’s Progressive Caucus, citing Nelson’s actions on voting rights in Florida.

Former state Sen. Nan Rich, a candidate for governor, also said she hopes Nelson will change his view.

“When something is wrong, it’s wrong,” she said. “Bill Clinton recognized that and reversed his position. I hope that Sen. Nelson will do the same.”

Nadine Smith of Tampa, executive director of the Equality Florida gay rights advocacy group, said five congressional Democrats changed sides on the issue in the 48 hours prior to the Supreme Court hearings that started Tuesday on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.

She said her group’s “action alert” to members Wednesday resulted in more than 1,000 messages to Nelson.

With federal offices closed Friday, a Nelson spokesman couldn’t confirm the number of contacts to the office.

Ros-Lehtinen has said her history of backing gay rights issues is, in part, because she has a transgendered son, and, in part, because of her husband’s experience being treated by a lesbian nurse for combat injuries in Vietnam.

Jo Deutsch, lobbyist for the Freedom to Marry organization, said Ros-Lehtinen is the only Florida Republican in Congress who supports overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and the only Republican sponsor of legislation to repeal it.

Rubio said through a spokesman that he believes marriage “is a unique historical institution defined as the union between one man and one woman.”

He said he respects the right of states to legalize same-sex marriage but that it isn’t a U.S. constitutional right, and the federal government “has a compelling need to achieve a level of national uniformity” in applying the legal benefits of marriage.

Therefore, he said, the Defense of Marriage Act should stand “as long as it continues to reflect the consensus definition of marriage among the states.”

In an interview Monday cited by his media spokeswoman, Bush told the conservative website Newsmax he’d prefer that same-sex marriage “be a state-by-state issue.” He cited “growing divergence of opinion” on the issue.

States, he said, can deal with changing social mores better than the federal government.

Meanwhile, in a speech in North Carolina on Thursday, he praised Hagan for taking what he called a “courageous” stance that he said could cause her to lose an election in the conservative state.


wmarch@tampatrib.com

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