The Senate will vote Wednesday whether to proceed with a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, speaks to reporters Tuesday following a closed-door policy meeting on the Democrats' lame duck agenda, at the Capitol in Washington. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Staring down the prospect of divided government in the next Congress, Senate Democrats are moving forward with legislation this week to protect same sex and interracial marriages. It’s a vote that’s “as personal as it gets,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Schumer is holding a test vote on the bill Wednesday, betting that at least 10 Republicans will vote with all 50 Democrats to move forward with the legislation to ensure that same-sex and interracial marriages are legally recognized nationwide. The bill has gained steady momentum since the Supreme Court’s June decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and the federal right to an abortion. An opinion at that time from Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that an earlier high court decision protecting same-sex marriage could also come under threat.

If the Senate votes to move forward with the legislation, a final vote could come as soon as this week, or by the end of the month, while Democrats still control the House. Republicans are on the verge of winning the House majority and would be unlikely to take up the issue next year.

“I firmly believe that passing bipartisan marriage protections would be one of the more significant accomplishments in what’s already been a significantly productive Congress,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “It will do so much good for so many people who want nothing more than to live their lives without the fear of discrimination.”

Congress has been moving to protect same-sex marriage as support from the general public — and from Republicans in particular — has sharply grown in recent years, as the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalized gay marriage nationwide. Recent polling has found more than two-thirds of the public supports same-sex unions.

Still, it’s not yet certain whether Democrats have the 10 votes they need to overcome a filibuster on Wednesday and get a bill through the 50-50 Senate. So far, at least three Republicans have said they will vote for the legislation and are working with Democrats to pass it: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

Most Republicans have stayed quiet on whether they will support it, but those pushing the bill say they believe the 10 GOP votes are there. Democrats delayed consideration of the legislation until after the midterm elections, hoping that would relieve political pressure for some Republicans who might be wavering on the bill.

And a proposed amendment to the legislation, negotiated by supporters to bring more Republicans on board, would clarify that it does not affect the rights of private individuals or businesses — rights that are already enshrined in law. Another tweak would make clear that a marriage is between two people, an effort to ward off some far-right criticism that the legislation could endorse polygamy.

The legislation would repeal the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act and require states to recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed. The new Respect for Marriage Act would also protect interracial marriages by requiring states to recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”

Some Republicans say the changes are not enough. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who had hinted that he might support it before he won reelection last week, said this week that he would not, citing concerns about religious liberty.

Still, the growing GOP support for the issue is a sharp contrast from even a decade ago, when many Republicans vocally opposed same-sex marriages. The legislation passed the House in a July vote with the support of 47 Republicans — a larger-than-expected number that gave the measure a boost in the Senate.

On Tuesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became the most recent conservative-leaning group to back the legislation. In a statement, the Utah-based faith said church doctrine would continue to consider same-sex relationships to be against God’s commandments, but that it would support rights for same-sex couples as long as they didn’t infringe upon religious groups’ right to believe as they choose.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who is the first openly gay senator and has been working on gay rights issues for almost four decades, says the newfound openness from many Republicans on the subject reminds her “of the arc of the LBGTQ movement to begin with, in the early days when people weren’t out and people knew gay people by myths and stereotypes.”

Baldwin says that as more individuals and families have become visible, hearts and minds have changed.

“And slowly laws have followed,” she said. “It is history.”

Schumer said the issue is personal to him, as well.

“Passing the Respect for Marriage Act is as personal as it gets for many senators and their staffs, myself included,” Schumer said. “My daughter and her wife are actually expecting a little baby in February. So it matters a lot to so many of us to get this done.”

Story by Mary Clare Jalonick. Associated Press writer Sam Metz contributed to this report.