By Keith Rodgers
Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada said Thursday she will use her leverage on the House Veterans Affairs Committee to back the Obama administration's effort in granting benefits to same-sex married veterans.
She issued a statement on the veterans issue days after legally married same-sex military spouses started drawing benefits allowed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Similarly, Titus said same-sex veteran spouses should be afforded health care benefits, survivor benefits and disability benefits that heterosexual veteran spouses have received.
"Far too long, DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) denied legally married, same-sex couples access to federal benefits, including those provided by the VA," said Titus, a Democrat and ranking member on the Veterans Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee.
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, paving the way for same-sex married military spouses to receive benefits beginning Sept. 3 that are retroactive to the date of the decision.
In keeping with the high court's intent, President Barack Obama directed the executive branch to halt enforcement of a provision in the veterans benefits law that defines "spouse" to mean a person of the opposite sex.
In a letter to congressional leaders this week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Veterans Affairs provision contradicts the Supreme Court's ruling.
Holder's letter came on the heels of last week's ruling by a federal judge in Los Angeles that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse are entitled to disability benefits based on the Supreme Court's ruling.
Titus is now waiting for the Justice Department to review how its announcement that it will not enforce VA regulations that preclude those benefits will apply to same-sex spouses of veterans in states such as Nevada that don't recognize marriages of gays and lesbians.
Currently, same-sex marriages are only recognized in the District of Columbia and 13 states -- California, Washington, Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Delaware and Rhode Island.
Same-sex married veterans in those states can expect to receive health care, disability and survivor benefits.
But what's unclear is how the Justice Department will deal with the veterans benefit law that defines a spouse as a member of the opposite sex, and how its non-enforcement policy applies in states that don't recognize gay marriages.
While the departments of Justice and Veterans Affairs are reviewing policies and discussing how to extend benefits in the remaining states, Titus is ready to push forward a bill she introduced after the Supreme Court's ruling that would provide a legislative remedy.
Her measure, the Veterans Spouses Equal Treatment Act, would amend the definition of "spouse" to include same-sex spouses by striking what she views as discriminatory language, specifically, "an individual of the opposite sex."
In her statement, Titus said, "The men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States military represent the best of our nation. But the fact remains that the language found in the U.S. code excludes same-sex couples. Congress must amend the current definition to remove any doubt that legally married, same-sex couples will receive the benefits they have earned through their service to our country."
Meanwhile, other government agencies are in step with the Supreme Court's decision. The Social Security Administration has begun processing retirement claims for same-sex spouses, and the Internal Revenue Service is poised to accept joint federal tax returns filed by legally married same-sex couples even if they reside in states that don't recognize gay marriages.