Iowa House Republicans accept marriage equality but can't admit it yet

Four years ago, Republicans rushed to pass a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman within weeks of regaining control of the Iowa House. Every member of the GOP caucus was on the same page.

Two years ago, the marriage amendment failed to come up for a vote in the Iowa House, but a majority of Republican lawmakers still co-sponsored the legislation.

Now, signs point to Iowa House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore letting the marriage amendment die quietly, as he did in 2013. Fewer than a quarter of the 57 House Republicans signed on to the latest effort to turn back the clock on marriage rights. At the same time, only one GOP lawmaker is “loud and proud” about supporting the right of all Iowans to marry the person they love.

Follow me after the jump for a breakdown of where Iowa House Republicans stand on the “traditional marriage” amendment, and speculation on why so many of them aren’t trying to pass it anymore, even though they ostensibly don’t support LGBT marriage rights.  

Republicans won back the state House majority in the 2010 elections, the same year Iowans voted against retaining three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had concurred in the 2009 Varnum v Brien ruling on marriage. GOP leaders brought a constitutional amendment on marriage to the House floor during the first month of the 2011 session. At that time, 56 of the 60 House Republicans co-sponsored House Joint Resolution 6. All four who didn’t co-sponsor the amendment voted for it on the House floor.

Who would have guessed that four short years later, just twelve Iowa House Republicans would be co-sponsoring the marriage amendment? House Joint Resolution 4 was introduced more than two weeks ago, but I held off on writing this post, waiting to see whether more co-sponsors would emerge. Nope. At this writing, only a dozen Republicans are co-sponsoring:

Clel Baudler

Terry Baxter

Dean Fisher

Tedd Gassman

Greg Heartsill

Steve Holt

John Kooiker

Sandy Salmon

Larry Sheets

Ralph Watts

John Wills

House Speaker Pro Tem Matt Windschitl

David Sieck just won a special election in House district 23 and hasn’t been sworn in yet. Even if he co-sponsors the amendment, that would make just 13 out of 57 House Republicans–less than a quarter of the GOP caucus–willing to stand up and be counted for changing the state constitution so that only opposite-sex couples can marry in Iowa.

Even more remarkable, among the 31 current House Republicans who voted for the marriage amendment in January 2011, just three are co-sponsoring the effort now: Baudler, Watts, and Windschitl. Interestingly, Baudler did not co-sponsor the 2013 version of the marriage amendment. Maybe he got blowback from some Republicans in his district. Also worth noting: Windschitl is the only member of the House leadership team who is still co-sponsoring the marriage amendment.

In contrast, 28–that’s more than 90 percent–of the current House Republicans who voted for the marriage amendment four years ago declined to co-sponsor the legislation this year. Seven of those also didn’t co-sponsor the 2013 version. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Josh Byrnes (the only public supporter of marriage equality in the House GOP caucus)

Peter Cownie

Mary Ann Hanusa

Dave Heaton

Brian Moore

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer

The following 20 Iowa House Republicans voted for the marriage amendment in 2011 and co-sponsored the amendment in 2013 but declined to co-sponsor this year’s version:

Chip Baltimore

Dave Deyoe

Cecil Dolecheck

Jack Drake

Greg Forristall

Joel Fry (now an assistant majority leader)

Pat Grassley

Chris Hagenow (now House majority whip)

Lee Hein (also an assistant majority leader)

Dan Huseman

Ron Jorgensen

Jarad Klein (also an assistant majority leader)

Kevin Koester

Linda Miller

Dawn Pettengill

Walt Rogers (also an assistant majority leader)

Tom Sands

Chuck Soderberg

Guy Vander Linden

Gary Worthan

Ross Paustian didn’t take a position on the marriage amendment in 2013, because he lost his seat in the 2012 general election. He won it back last November.

Among the Iowa House Republicans who have never voted on the marriage amendment, having been elected to the chamber for the first time in 2012 or more recently, nine (listed above) are co-sponsoring the amendment, but sixteen opted not to co-sponsor House Joint Resolution 4:

Rob Bacon (co-sponsored 2013 version)

Brian Best

Darrel Branhagen

Gary Carlson

Stan Gustafson

Jake Highfill

Megan Jones (formerly Megan Hess)

Bobby Kaufmann

John Landon (co-sponsored 2013 version)

David Maxwell

Norlin Mommsen

Zach Nunn

Ken Rizer

Mike Sexton

Quentin Stanerson

Rob Taylor

Several in that group represent central or eastern Iowa districts containing a lot of social moderates. Others are young enough to potentially have decades-long careers ahead. Not being a mind-reader, I don’t know their reasons for declining to co-sponsor the marriage amendment or their personal opinions on LGBT equality. But I wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to end up like some senior politicians I remember from the 1980s and 1990s, who were forced to explain embarrassing votes against civil rights legislation.

As I said earlier, Iowa House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore appears likely to let the marriage amendment die again this year. His committee never took action on the 2013 version of the marriage amendment, even though Baltimore was nominally a supporter and co-sponsor. At that time, he had a convenient excuse, because supporters filed the marriage amendment less than a week before the “funnel” deadline.

This year’s first funnel deadline is Friday, March 6. With the exception of appropriations bills, most legislation that hasn’t cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by that time will be considered dead for this session. There is still plenty of time for Baltimore to assign House Joint Resolution 4 to a subcommittee, pass the bill in subcommittee, and consider the bill in the full House Judiciary Committee, but I wouldn’t put money on that happening.

The marriage amendment was introduced and referred to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on January 27. Typically, the next step would be for the chair to assign the bill to a subcommittee. Yet at this writing, HJR4 has not been assigned to a subcommittee.

If Baltimore does bring the marriage amendment up in his committee, things could get awkward. Of the 13 Republicans now serving on the House Judiciary Committee, just three (Baxter, Heartsill, and Windschitl) are co-sponsoring HJR 4. Voting on the amendment could be a lose-lose proposition for the others (Baltimore, Gustafson, Hagenow, Nunn, Rizer, Rogers, Kaufmann, Heaton, Branhagen, and Jones). As the years pass, a vote to restore discrimination against LGBT Iowans will be increasingly unpopular and difficult to explain. Yet voting against a marriage amendment now would enrage social conservatives who still believe in the GOP platform’s “traditional marriage” plank.

Voting on the marriage amendment looks like a headache these Republicans don’t need. It’s easier to avoid attracting any public attention to the issue.

On a related note, Bleeding Heartland speculated in 2011 that six young and upwardly-mobile members of the Iowa House might live to regret their votes to restore discrimination against same-sex couples. Three of those have since left the legislature (Erik Helland lost his 2012 GOP primary, while Renee Schulte and Nick Wagner lost to Democrats in the 2012 general election). The other three were Hagenow (now the House majority whip), Grassley, and Cownie. All three are still seen as potential candidates for higher office someday. Grassley will probably run for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2018 if current Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey runs for governor, as expected.

In recent weeks, I sought comment from Hagenow, Grassley, and Cownie on whether their views on the marriage amendment had changed or whether there was some other reason they are not co-sponsoring House Joint Resolution 4. None responded to my inquiry.

I would guess that many Iowa House Republicans share first-term Representative Ken Rizer’s stance. After I wrote that both Josh Byrnes and Rizer supported the right of same-sex couples to marry in Iowa, Rizer was quick to correct my misunderstanding:

“What I said then and have always said is that I personally believe in traditional marriage, yet I recognize the legal and political realities that make same-sex marriage a reality in our state. I don’t see this as something that is likely to change, so it wasn’t a political issue for me in my race. I think my time can be best utilized on other issues.”

Granted, the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate will never allow a marriage amendment to come up for a vote, but the same was true in 2011, when House Republicans could hardly wait to go on record for “traditional marriage.” That can’t be the only reasons House Republicans would rather not co-sponsor the marriage amendment anymore. Nor does it take a lot of time to add one’s name as a co-sponsor. I suspect Rizer and others in his cohort just prefer not to vote on marriage rights.

Also around the time this Bleeding Heartland post appeared, several people who are active in Iowa politics told me I was wrong, because this, that or the other Iowa House Republican also supports marriage equality. I contacted all of those legislators to clarify their position on the issue. None replied to my request for comment. I don’t think it’s simply because I’m a Democratic blogger, because lots of House Republicans have been responsive to my queries before. I suspect that whatever they feel privately, they see little upside and a lot of downside to being quoted as either supporting or opposing the right of gay and lesbian couples to get married.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.  

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