House panel approves domestic partner benefits

After a heated debate over gay rights and extending benefits in an economic downturn, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday passed 23 to 12 legislation that would provide health care and other employment benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian federal employees.

Republican committee members argued that the 2009 Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (H.R. 2517) was an inappropriate extension of benefits to a small subset of federal employees at a time when unemployment was rising. They also said such a move would threaten the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and could open the door to fraud by people of the same sex who simply wanted access to benefits.

Democrats countered that extending access to health and survivor benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers in exchange for an agreement that those employees would abide by rules governing nepotism and financial disclosure for their partners, was a matter of equality and of establishing the federal government as an inclusive, competitive employer.

"It is time to unburden those who bear the burden of government service," said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif. "I would urge my colleagues to get rid of their discrimination and their bigotry."

A technical debate emerged over a requirement in the bill that federal employees attest to their domestic partnership by submitting affidavits. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said he was concerned there was no requirement that couples live together for a specific amount of time, and that residency requirements could be waived for certain employment and financial reasons. The vagueness of those mandates, he said, made it possible for federal employees to fake partnerships to receive benefits for friends or family.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform federal workforce subcommittee, said the Office of Personnel Management long had provided benefits to couples in common-law marriages, and had never required those couples or those legally married to submit affidavits attesting to their partnerships. The penalties attached to the affidavits, and possible discrimination are more than enough to deter fraud, Lynch said.

"Given the discrimination against gays and lesbians in our society -- and that's a fact -- I don't think there are a whole lot of people out there that are trying to pretend they're gay or pretend that they're lesbians to get benefits," Lynch said.

Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., unsuccessfully offered an amendment requiring the verification of domestic partners' immigration status before they could receive benefits. Several Republican lawmakers said that immigration verification was standard procedure for providing benefits, and that adding it would preempt opposition to the legislation. But Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., strongly criticized the amendment saying it amounted to political posturing and was not germane to the legislation.

"We now have to be afraid of gay people coming over the border and entering into domestic partnerships with federal employees?" Lynch asked Bilbray. "This is where it becomes just too incredible to believe. There are concerns we ought to be grappling with….I don't think this is really one of them."

The committee adopted amendments offered by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., establishing reporting requirements for the legislation. Chaffetz's amendment would require the Government Accountability Office to report two years after the bill's implementation on how it has affected federal employees' health care premiums. Quigley's amendment requires similar reports on the legislation's effect on federal recruiting and retention.

The committee was nearing passage of the bill, but had not yet taken a full vote as of late Wednesday evening.

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