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WASHINGTON -- The Tennessee Republican who represented Chattanooga in Congress in 1996 and supported the Defense of Marriage Act says he would vote against the very same bill today.
"The whole issue of same-sex marriage has evolved," former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said in a recent phone interview. "We didn't have 17 years of states adopting it. You can't compare 1996 to 2013."
On July 12, 1996, Wamp, a Republican finishing his first of eight House terms, cast one of 370 "yea" votes that helped define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He was far from alone: All but one member of Tennessee's 11-member congressional delegation -- including three Democrats -- voted the same way. (Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., the Memphis Democrat, did not vote.)
It served as the law of the land until last week, when the Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional, giving legally married gay couples the right to more than 1,000 federal benefits.
In the phone interview, Wamp said he still endorses the "biblical definition" of "traditional marriage." But ultimately it's a states' rights issue, he said he has come to believe. Wamp praised the Supreme Court for responding to changes in public opinion and momentum in the gay rights movement.
"Let them live how they want to live in New York," Wamp said, mentioning one of 13 states that have legalized gay marriage. "I'll choose to live this way in Tennessee."
Wamp's revised position represents a break from his 3rd Congressional District successor, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican. In a statement, the latter called the Supreme Court ruling "disappointing."
Unsuccessfully fighting back tears, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann last week honored his father in a House floor speech that arguably was the Ooltewah Republican's most personal and poignant moment in politics.
Max Fleischmann Jr., 87, died of cancer last week. In six minutes of remarks Thursday, his only child described a humble upbringing and a life well-lived with surplus quantities of hard work and compassion.
"His generation was coined later as 'the greatest generation,'" the congressman said. "Now I know why."
A World War II veteran without a formal education, the elder Fleischmann moved from city to city and job to job, the congressman said, making sure his son went to college and law school by stashing away $20 a week.
"My son is going to get an education," the younger Fleischmann recalled his father saying over and over. "That was so important."
His voice breaking, Fleischmann juxtaposed the sour approval ratings for Congress with his father's experience of watching C-SPAN from Tennessee.
"Sometimes we get ratings -- 6 percent, 10 percent, 11 percent," he said. "He loved to watch this House. He really liked it when I got to [preside]. He'd call all the relatives."
Immediately after the speech, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., commended Fleischmann.
"I know your father is extraordinarily proud of you," Hoyer said, "and extraordinarily proud of the remarks you just made showing how proud you are of him."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.