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Senator Schatz Motion on Same-Sex Spousal Benefits Passes Senate

Washington, D.C – Today, the Senate passed U.S. Senator Brian Schatz’s (D-Hawai‘i) motion to instruct budget conferees to include in their final report language affirming the need for legislation to ensure that all legally married same-sex spouses have equal access to the Social Security and veterans’ benefits they have earned.  The motion passed by voice vote.  

“This is not an ideological proposal.  This is about treating veterans, disabled Americans, and our seniors equally – no matter where they live or what their sexual orientation may be,” said Senator Schatz.

Earlier today, Senator Schatz spoke on the Senate floor to call for the passage of his motion.

Full text of remarks follow:

Three weeks ago, the Senate held an important vote on an amendment to the budget resolution.  Fifty-six of my colleagues, including eleven Republicans, joined me in affirming the need for legislation to ensure that all legally married spouses, including gay couples, have access to Social Security and VA benefits that their families have earned.

This amendment passed with bipartisan support because it is fundamentally about fairness.  

Imagine a veteran who served his country for decades, fighting for equality and freedom around the world.  He gets married in a state that allows gay marriage.  If he is permanently disabled from his service, his spouse is eligible for veteran spousal benefits.  They have earned these benefits.

But if they move – if they drive over the border from Florida into Georgia, for example, they lose those benefits.

The same scenario applies to our seniors and their right to Social Security spousal benefits.  

Why does this happen?  Simply because the federal right to these benefits happens to be defined in law with respect to the state ofresidence, rather than the state of celebration of the marriage.

In other words, eligibility for these benefits is based on where you live, not where you got married.

So, we have one federal right and two unequal outcomes based on the person’s residence.  This is the definition of unequal treatment under the law.

No one is denying that Americans earn their Social Security and veteran’s benefits regardless of whether they are gay or straight.  

And, since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, no one can deny that the federal government is required to recognize all legal marriages.  

For almost all federal agencies, this went into effect right away.  Gay married couples can now file joint taxes.  In legal proceedings before the federal government, same-sex spouses are given the same legal rights as all other spouses.  Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employee can now take leave to care for a same-sex spouse.  

These are just a few of the ways that the federal government brought its policies into line with the law.

The Social Security Administration and the VA, however, are tripped up by old wording in their authorizing statutes.  

Working together, we can fix this.  We can pass legislation to ensure that all legally married couples receive equal treatment under the law regardless of where they live.  The amendment that the Senate voted to include in the budget affirms the need for this legislation.

Allowing unequal treatment under the law goes against American values and our Constitution.  Equality under federal laws shouldn’t end when you cross state lines.

We are not debating whether gay marriage should be legal in all fifty states – that question is currently before the Supreme Court.  We are debating whether a federal right should be afforded to all Americans regardless of where they live.

For those who are concerned about preserving states’ rights, I understand that perspective, but you should support fixing the statutes governing Social Security and veterans benefits.  

Fixing these statutes does not impact state law whatsoever.  In contrast, by not fixing these statutes, the federal government is ignoring the laws of states that allow gay marriage.  It actually does harm to states’ rights to allow this situation to continue.

This is not an ideological proposal, and I should point out that the Senator from Washington, Senator Patty Murray and the Senator from New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen, this was really their idea originally.  First, on the Social Security side, Senator Murray provided this as a piece of legislation.  And Jeanne Shaheen, likewise on the VA side.  And we worked together during the so-called “vote-a-rama” to kind of merge these proposals into one, because the same principle applies for both benefits, which is that equal protection under the law should not depend on which of the fifty states you reside in.

This is about treating veterans, disabled Americans, and our seniors equally – no matter where they live or what their sexual orientation may be.

Thank you.