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Domestic partnership bill for federal workers gets Senate hearing
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Domestic partnership bill for federal workers gets Senate hearing

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings on October 15 on new legislation that would give domestic partners of federal employees the same benefits as married spouses.

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is the prime sponsor of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act. Twenty-four other Senators have signed on as co-sponsors, including Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell

On the House side, Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is the sponsor of a companion bill. Her legislation, which has 120 co-sponsors, was approved in July by a House Oversight & Government Reform subcommittee. Supporters have said they're hoping for a full committee markup this month, although nothing has yet been scheduled.

Lieberman said he introduced the bill because it "makes sense for the federal government as an employer."

"As we approach a generational change in the federal workforce that will see the retirement of one-third of all federal employees, we must do all we can to attract and retain the 'best and the brightest' to serve in the years ahead," he said. "This legislation would help accomplish that."

Lieberman said during the hearing that he expects his committee to markup the measure in November or December, with a Senate floor vote to follow in early 2010. After the hearing, Lieberman told reporters he doesn't know whether he has the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster in the Senate, but remains "hopeful" the legislation will pass.

No committee member who attended the hearing spoke against the bill. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking Republican member of the committee, is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

The Obama administration was represented by John Berry, Director of the US Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking openly Gay person in the Obama administration. Berry said the White House and OPM "wholeheartedly endorse passage of this bill."

Pres. Obama has promised to sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk.

In June, Pres. Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum on Federal Benefits and Non-Discrimination, which directs the OPM and the State Department to extend certain benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees within the confines of existing federal law.

During the hearing, Lieberman cited a recent study from the Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think-tank on sexual orientation, which found that as of 2007 more than 34,000 federal workers were in relationships with same-sex partners.

The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would provide them with the same health insurance, dental and vision benefits, retirement and disability benefits, family, medical, and emergency leave, group life insurance, long-term care insurance, compensation for work injuries, and benefits for disability, death, or captivity that married spouses would receive.

The legislation excludes members of the armed services from the definition of "employee," however.

Because it offers benefits to unmarried partners, the legislation would not conflict with the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union which represents federal employees, welcomed the measure.

AFGE Local 3937 President Steve Kofahl told SGN, "I think that this is a modest step forward, but we are looking for much more from the Obama administration, of course."

Sherri Bracey, Program Manager for the AFGE Women's and Fair Practices Department said, "One cannot justify discriminating against federal employees who are in domestic partnerships versus federal employees who are in conventional marriages."

"Refusal to provide equitable treatment with regard to the provision of employee benefits is a violation of the merit system principle that promises equal pay for substantially equal work," she added.

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