By Mike Dorning and Caitlin Webber
WASHINGTON — A Pentagon announcement that it will open military commissaries and child-care facilities this year to the same-sex partners of service members propels a wave of gay rights issues sweeping onto the national agenda.
Even as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was announcing Monday the changes in military benefits, the Senate was debating a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which for the first time would extend federal protection to homosexual partners suffering domestic abuse. The Senate voted 78 to 22 Tuesday to renew the measure.
The White House is pressing Congress to grant immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and the Supreme Court is getting ready to hear a challenge to a 1996 federal law that defines marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman.
"Things are changing," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "It's slow, but it's happening here. As states legalize same-sex marriage, I think this is having a remedial effect all around the nation."
President Barack Obama elevated the cause of gay rights to the level of civil-rights struggles for blacks and women in his Jan. 21 inauguration speech.
"Our journey is not complete," he said, "until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well."
With polls showing public sentiment shifting toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, some Republicans are caught between the moderating social views of the country overall and the continuing opposition to the gay rights agenda by their party's base of evangelicals and cultural traditionalists.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of his party's potential 2016 presidential candidates, cautions that efforts to accept same-sex marriage could stall legislation.