U.S. Rep. Adam Smith wants the Pentagon to change the definition of spouse to include same-sex couples so that husbands and wives of legally married gays and lesbians in the armed forces could collect military benefits.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, has proposed that the Pentagon change the definition of spouse to include same-sex couples, thereby allowing legally married gays and lesbians to collect military benefits.

Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, on Wednesday introduced a bill to essentially exempt the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs from the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as between a woman and a man.

Smith’s Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act would rewrite a section of the U.S. Code to recognize husbands and wives of service members “without regard to whether the two persons are of the opposite sex or of the same sex.”

Smith called the proposal a “simple” fix for a practice he says is discriminatory. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, is among the 12 co-sponsors.

The Pentagon has already dropped its ban on openly gay service members. But the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule by itself doesn’t entitle same-sex couples in the armed forces to the same benefits as straight couples.

Congressional Democrats, — buoyed by President’s Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage — are trying to overturn DOMA by passing the Respect for Marriage Act. If they succeed, that legislation would supersede Smith’s bill.

All six Democrats in Congress from Washington state, including Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, have signed on to repeal the federal ban on recognizing gay and lesbian marriages. The state’s four Republican members support making same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Same-sex couples already can be legally married in six states and in the District of Columbia. In addition, Washington and Maryland legalized same-sex marriages earlier this year. A referendum on the fall ballot in Washington could overturn the new gay-marriage law.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com