Titus loses bid to widen VA benefits for gays

WASHINGTON — It was an unusual venue for a fight over gay marriage, but a congressional committee on veterans affairs on Wednesday revived debate over federal benefits for spouses in same-sex couples.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., called a vote on an amendment that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend benefits in same-sex marriages nationwide, not just in states where the unions are legally recognized. The VA is one of the few remaining bureaucracies — the Social Security Administration is another — that defer to state law in determining who is legally married.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages, although marriage laws in a number of states including Nevada presently are being reviewed by federal judges.

“Our veterans did not fight for a state, they fought for the United States,” Titus said at a committee meeting. She argued it made little sense that the Department of Defense offers military benefits to same-sex spouses, but the same couples are denied benefits when a soldier leaves the military and moves to a state that does not recognize gay marriage.

“If they live in California, they can get benefits, then they move to Texas and they lose the benefits,” Titus said. “They live in New York they get the benefits, they move to Florida they lose those benefits.”

Titus argued doing away with the checkerboard of states friendly and unfriendly to same-sex couples was a matter of fairness. She said it would not force states to recognize gay marriages but was intended to harmonize the distribution of federal benefits from the VA, including pensions, government-supported loans and disability pay.

“Look yourself in the eye and in the mirror and say, is this fair to my veterans?” Titus told committee members “I ask you to have one ounce of the courage they have and vote to give all our veterans equal rights.”

The Titus amendment was shelved in a 12-13 vote in the Republican-controlled committee after its chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., came out against it. Titus was joined by committee Democrats and Republican Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey. All votes against the amendment were cast by Republicans.

Miller said the VA by law has long deferred to states as far as who is considered legally married. The agency policy is being challenged in court by the American Military Partner Association.

“Deference to the states is not motivated by hostility, it is motivated by adherence to the Constitution,” Miller said. “It is not appropriate to usurp state powers to define marriage for their citizens, not for personal belief and not for bureaucratic convenience.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.