ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Fifteen years ago, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. It said, while each state could decide how to define marriage, the federal government would only recognize the legal union of a man and a woman.
Since then, more than 130,000 same-sex couples have legally married in the U.S. and today, a congressional committee passed the very first measure to repeal DOMA. NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: It was a straight party line vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with every Democrat voting to repeal DOMA and every Republican opposed. Still, Democratic chairman Patrick Leahy hailed the result.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: This morning, the Judiciary Committee took an historic step forward in righting an injustice that goes right to the core of what we stand for in this nation: freedom and equality.
WELNA: California Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, who sponsored the bill, noted that same-sex marriage is now legal in six states and the District of Columbia.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It's pretty clear that the time has come to repeal DOMA. When DOMA was passed, no one was affected because no one was legally married, because no state had passed a law. That's changed now.
WELNA: Feinstein's Respect for Marriage Act, which now awaits action by the full Senate, would nullify DOMA. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said it's about ending official discrimination.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: What we have said quite simply is, if a state has legalized same-sex marriage, the Respect for Marriage Act will ensure that same-sex couples married in that state are treated the same under federal law as other lawfully married couples.
WELNA: Republicans on the panel noted that many states have voted since the passage of DOMA to effectively ban same-sex marriage. Orrin Hatch is a Utah Republican.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Forcing those states to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere or subsidizing federal rights and benefits of individuals in same-sex marriages disrespects state regulation of marriage.
WELNA: And Texas Republican John Cornyn accused Democrats of simply playing politics.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Knowing that this bill will never become law in this Congress, I think it's a transparent appeal to a special interest group that our Democratic friends believe is a key to their electoral victory in 2012.
WELNA: Not so, said Delaware Democrat Tim Coons(ph).
SENATOR CHRIS COONS: We are sending an important message that it does get better.
WELNA: Passage of DOMA's repeal, Democrats said, is bound to happen. The only question is how soon. David Welna, NPR News, the capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.