Partner benefits bill advances, but hurdles remain

Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins await a list of offsets. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins await a list of offsets. Harry Hamburg/AP
A Senate panel on Wednesday advanced legislation that would provide benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian federal employees, but two key senators said they would hold up the bill until the Office of Personnel Management explained how the program would be paid for within existing benefits budgets.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 8-1 in favor of moving the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (S. 1102), sponsored by Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, to the full Senate.

"I believe this legislation is really on the right side of history," Lieberman said. "The basic point here is federal employees should not have to choose between their commitment to federal public service and their commitment to their families because they get fewer protections for their families than they could receive from private employers."

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, was the only lawmaker to vote against the measure during the markup, though Sens. George Voinovoich, R-Ohio, ranking member of the committee's Federal Workforce Subcommittee; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., opposed it by proxy ballots. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., cast an affirmative vote by proxy. Proxy ballots are only for the Senate record and do not weigh into whether a bill passes.

The debate preceding the vote was much less contentious than an extended markup in November that led to the bill's passage in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But the Senate panel did adopt an amendment offered by Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., that requires the Government Accountability Office to study the measure's impact on federal recruitment and retention and report to the Senate and the House government oversight committees.

Lieberman and Collins said they were happy to see the bill move forward, but they would not seek time on the Senate calendar for debate until OPM explained how it planned to pay for the benefits it would begin providing to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian federal employees.

That cost is estimated to be $38 million in fiscal 2010 and $63 million annually over the next 10 years, Lieberman said. In October, OPM Director John Berry told the committee those costs could be offset through reductions in the budgets of other agency programs, Lieberman and Collins noted.

"This is one of the lowest-cost options you could give us," Berry said at the time. "I know we will be able to find efficiencies to offset this over the course of the administration."

But Collins and Lieberman said they had not yet received a firm list of cost savings from OPM.

Collins said she was "very disappointed" OPM had not provided the final plan, but added she had been told the Office of Management and Budget was reviewing a proposed list. Lieberman said the strategy for making the benefits cost-neutral was critical to the bill's ultimate passage.

"We will not move it on the floor of the Senate until we get that explicit offset so this is a deficit-neutral step," he said.

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