Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal promised this week to block an Iowa Senate vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, even if a majority of senators sign a petition asking for a vote. The Republican reaction to Gronstal's comments makes me wonder whether gay marriage will be in the coming decade what the death penalty was to Iowa Republicans in the 1980s and 1990.
Reinstating the death penalty was a major theme in all of Terry Branstad's previous election campaigns. But as governor he didn't deploy his political capital to push that bill through the state legislature, even when Republicans controlled both chambers during his last two years in office. Many Iowa Democrats believed Branstad valued having the issue to run on more than he cared about the policy.
In light of Tuesday's election results, Republicans sound surprisingly resigned to failure on passing a marriage amendment in the new legislature.
The new Iowa House, with a likely Republican majority of 60 to 40, will pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage right away. The roadblock will come in the Senate, where Democrats will at worst be tied 25-25 with Republicans, and could hold a 26-24 or a 27-23 majority. Gronstal said the day after the election that there's no way he will allow a marriage amendment to come to the Senate floor for a vote:
"There's no mechanism whereby senators, even a majority of senators, can override the majority leader," according to Secretary of the Senate Mike Marshall, a staffer who ensures rules are followed.
Senate Republicans intend to try various maneuvers to force a vote, even though they don't believe such efforts will succeed. Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, hopes public pressure might eventually compel Gronstal to allow a vote, but Gronstal said Wednesday that will never happen.
McKinley said: "I believe enough pressure will be brought that Mike Gronstal will have to stand against the wishes of the entire majority of Iowans. And then he will agree to do the right thing."
Gronstal believes the right thing means protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians. He reaffirmed Wednesday that he won't bow to pressure, no matter how nasty it gets.
"The easy political thing for me to do years ago would have been to say, 'Oh, let's let this thing go. It's just too political and too messy,' " Gronstal said. "What's ugly is giving up what you believe in, that everybody has the same rights. Giving up on that? That's ugly."
That's a gutsy promise from Gronstal, since he comes up for re-election in 2012. Republicans just won House districts 99 and 100, which make up Gronstal's Senate district 50. There will also be members of his caucus who don't want to face voters in 2012 without having passed a marriage amendment.
The telling part of that Des Moines Register report was here: "Senate Republicans intend to try various maneuvers to force a vote, even though they don't believe such efforts will succeed." Suspending the Senate rules to force consideration of a marriage amendment is off the table, because the chamber has no procedural way to make that happen, according to Secretary of the Senate Mike Marshall.
If the Senate ends up divided 25-25, Gronstal said he will insist on a power-sharing arrangement similar to what happened in 2005 and 2006. Both the Democratic and Republican caucus leaders had to sign off on bringing any bill or resolution up for a vote.
During the Republican primary campaign for governor, Rod Roberts said he would refuse to sign any bills, including the state budget, until Democrats held a vote on a marriage amendment. But Branstad isn't talking that way:
Gov.-elect Terry Branstad said Wednesday that Gronstal's resistance to a vote on gay marriage likely spurred opposition to retaining the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were on the ballot Tuesday night.
"So I would hope that he would reconsider the idea of just dictatorially saying, 'I'm not going to let this come for consideration,' " Branstad, a Republican, told The Des Moines Register.
Instead of promising to do everything he can to force Gronstal to budge, Branstad hopes Gronstal will reconsider. If he doesn't, Branstad implies, the marriage issue may loom large over the 2012 elections.
Republican State Senator David Johnson told the Des Moines Register that he will again circulate a petition demanding a floor vote on a marriage amendment. Johnson was able to get five Democratic signatures on a similar petition during the 2010 legislative session. At least three of those Democrats will serve in the new Senate, giving Republicans at minimum 26 signatures. Commenting on Gronstal's promise not to bring the bill up for a vote, Johnson "said his petition this year will clearly tell Iowans who supports gay marriage and who doesn't. 'This issue is not going to go away, and it's going to be in play again in 2012,' Johnson said."
Republican Kraig Paulsen, who will be the new Iowa House speaker, doesn't sound too confident the marriage amendment will clear the Senate either:
"We're going to pass that resolution and what happens in the Senate is up to those 50 people," Paulsen said.
So, no Rod Roberts-like promise from Paulsen to block anything and everything until the marriage amendment passes.
What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers: will Republicans push hard to get a marriage amendment approved next year, or will they make a token effort that allows their candidates to run on the issue in 2012?
UPDATE: If Gronstal blocks a marriage amendment during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, the soonest the measure could come before Iowa voters for approval would be November 2016. To get the amendment on the statewide ballot, Republicans would need to win both legislative chambers in 2012, pass the constitutional amendment in 2013 or 2014, hold both chambers in 2014, then pass the amendment again in 2015 or 2016.
Kathie Obradovich's latest column for the Des Moines Register sees Gronstal remaining the "powerbroker" at the state capitol.
SECOND UPDATE: It's looking like a 26-24 Senate. Democrat Tod Bowman expanded his lead in Senate district 13 to 73 votes as late absentee ballots and provisional ballots were counted. In Senate district 47, Republican Mark Chelgren has a 13-vote lead, and few votes remain to be counted next week.