WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., a soft-spoken liberal, was on a plane home from Washington last month when she got word that Sen. Ron Johnson, her home-state colleague and a stridently hard-right Republican, had said publicly that he would not oppose a bill protecting same-sex marriage rights.
Seizing a rare moment in which she and Johnson — polar opposites by any measure — might agree on something, Baldwin tapped out a text to him saying she was thrilled.
“Don’t let them add anything obnoxious to it,” Johnson responded.
“I said I would do nothing to jeopardize its chances of passing,” Baldwin said in an interview in her Senate hideaway last week. “But we may differ on what constitutes ‘obnoxious.’”
Johnson replied with a thumbs-up emoji and wished her a pleasant weekend.
Baldwin, 60, who in 1999 became the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, has helmed the effort to win over the 10 Republican senators whose backing is necessary to secure passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would provide federal protections for same-sex marriage rights at a time of rising fears that they are at risk.
Now Baldwin, whose serene temperament and reserve have set her apart from her more press-preening and partisan colleagues, is in the spotlight as a pivotal player in a surprise legislative push, just weeks before midterm congressional elections, to ensure that rights for same-sex married couples will be recognized across the country.
So far, five Republicans, including Johnson, have stated publicly that they would support the legislation, which the House passed last month with an unexpectedly large fraction of GOP votes. The others are Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Baldwin said that, privately, at least five other Republicans have given her assurances that they will also support the bill when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., majority leader, follows through on his pledge to bring it to the floor, likely sometime after Labor Day.
“More and more, my Republican colleagues know gay people who are married,” Baldwin said. “They see that the sky hasn’t fallen. Maybe some of them have gone to these ceremonies. Maybe some know that, but for that marriage certificate, their cousin wouldn’t have been able to see her wife in the hospital because she would have been a legal stranger.”
Democrats are pressing to enact the legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the nearly 50-year-old right to an abortion, amid concern that precedents on same-sex marriages and protecting the rights of such couples could be the next to fall. In a concurring opinion in the abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the court also “should reconsider” past rulings that established marriage equality and access to contraception.
The House moved quickly to pass the same-sex marriage bill as Democrats rushed to put themselves on the record on the issue and Republicans on the spot before the elections. But 47 Republicans voted in favor — less than one-fourth of the conference but a larger proportion than expected — and Schumer said he would work to find the necessary votes to move it past a filibuster and to a vote.
In a matter of hours, a bill that many thought would be dead on arrival in the Senate became the subject of an intensive legislative push.
Baldwin, the epitome of Midwestern nice who enjoys sewing and cooking — hobbies she describes as “boring” — is in some ways an unlikely arm-twister for the effort.
Never one to seek attention, she played down the historic nature of her victory when she won her Senate seat 10 years ago, getting halfway through her speech before she mentioned that she was “well aware” that her election was a milestone for gay rights. (She also made history in 1999 with her election to the House, the first openly gay woman to serve there.)
Baldwin herself is not married, although she was in a domestic partnership that has since been dissolved.
The issue has defined her career in public office. Baldwin started working on marriage and domestic partnership legislation as a member of the Dane County board of supervisors and in the Wisconsin state Assembly in the 1990s at time when, she said, “all the results were bad.”
The picture is far different today, she noted. Since 2015, when the Supreme Court established constitutional same-sex marriage rights, the number of Americans in such marriages has risen to more than 1.1 million. Elected officials in both political parties feel a more personal connection to the issue, and many see their families at imminent risk.
“People are literally frightened about whether their marriage will be dissolved by the court,” Baldwin said. “The important rights associated with marriage at the state level and federal level could evaporate.”
Still, the marriage equality bill has a narrow path in the evenly divided Senate, and Democrats were not taking any chances. Schumer, wary of banking on private commitments of support, has told Baldwin that he wants a buffer and has her hunting for a few more Republicans to add to her “yes” column to comfortably account for any last-minute cold feet. (Still, Schumer has committed to bringing the bill up for a vote regardless of the final tally.)
Democrats and Republicans who support the measure were concerned, for instance, about whether Johnson, who said he saw “no reason to oppose” the legislation, could be counted as a reliable “yes” on any procedural vote to ensure passage. If he simply voted “present,” they would still need another Republican to support the legislation to pass it. Johnson’s office declined to clarify his stance.
With potential roadblocks in mind, Baldwin has been working her colleagues, on the phone on the weekends and anywhere she runs into a Republican as she goes about her day.
Even as the issue moved to the back burner as Democrats’ climate and health package took up the final days before the Senate’s August recess, Baldwin was working with Collins to build more support among Republicans by adding language stating explicitly that it would not take away any religious liberty or conscience protections.
Dressed in a seafoam-green jacket, she conferred quietly on the Senate floor last week with her desk mate, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who has said he was undecided about how he will vote on the bill. Braun, listening intently, at one point took a pen and began jotting down notes as Baldwin spoke.
As she buttonholed Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., Young could be heard telling Baldwin, “Oh, wow, that would be powerful,” and pondering if he could find some Congressional Research Service reports related to their discussion.
Baldwin has worked to persuade Republicans that it is safe to back the measure. She said she had reminded Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, that all four of his colleagues in Utah’s all-Republican House delegation voted “yes.”
The whipping operation started almost immediately after the House vote, when Baldwin headed to the floor to introduce the Senate version of the bill and ran into Portman.
“I had on my smartphone the names of all the Republicans who had just voted in the House, and there were a bunch of Ohio Republicans,” Baldwin recounted. “I said, ‘Rob, look at this!’”
The next day, Portman, who has a gay son and was the first Republican senator to publicly support same-sex marriage rights in 2013, joined as a co-sponsor.
“I started talking with others, and it went from hypothetical to ‘We could really do this,’” she said.
In her conversations, Baldwin has underscored that the bill is simple — less than four pages long. She has told other Republicans that a rationale such as Johnson’s — that the legislation is unnecessary but that there is no harm in passing it — is a perfectly acceptable justification for a “yes” vote.
The lobbying effort has been as nonconfrontational as Baldwin is. Right after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., dismissed the bill to a CNN reporter as a “stupid waste of time,” Baldwin found herself alone in an elevator with him. The elevator ride was described as a “confrontation” with a senator who is up for reelection in a red state.
But Baldwin is not one for heated encounters. She said she left the elevator, telling Rubio politely, “We’ll visit on this again.” (The two did, in fact, visit again on the issue, a spokesperson said.)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and the second openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Senate, has also been working closely with Baldwin to rally Republican support for the bill. She spoke with Johnson on the Senate floor before Baldwin texted him and has been working closely with Tillis and Portman, her spokesperson said.
Baldwin said she was determined to ensure that the Senate does not make the same mistake on marriage equality that she believed it did on abortion — that is, waiting until it was too late to try to legislate federal safeguards for rights that the court has already found to be protected by the Constitution.
So she was taking nothing for granted. As she counts noses, Baldwin said she has been keeping in mind the coronavirus, cognizant that in a 50-50 Senate, even one case could wipe away the margin of support needed to steer the bill to a final vote.
“We’re going to need everybody here. If we have two Democrats out with COVID, I need two more Republicans, which I may have, but you don’t want to roll the dice,” Baldwin said. “You want to be certain.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.