U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, listens to a question during a University of Florida board of trustees meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. The board later chose him to become UF's 13th president, starting in February. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Incoming University of Florida President Ben Sasse was among three U.S. senators to abstain from voting this week on the Respect for Marriage Act, which passed with provisions offering federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriage.

Sasse’s stances on same-sex marriage — including his comments on the Respect for Marriage Act when it was proposed — were among the top concerns cited by many who opposed his bid for the UF presidency.

The act passed Tuesday with 61 votes, including 12 from Republicans. Thirty-six Republicans voted against the act, including Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. Pennsylvania Republican Patrick Toomey and Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock also abstained.

Asked about Sasse’s abstention, a spokesperson for the senator provided a Politico story from last week that reported Sasse would be absent from Washington, D.C., because of a medical incident his wife suffered the previous weekend. It included a statement from Sasse’s office.

“As folks know, Melissa had a life-threatening vertebral dissection in 2007, and has suffered occasional seizures in recent years,” the statement said. “This weekend, she had a significant — but non-life-threatening — seizure while Ben and [his son] Breck were out deer hunting. Melissa is recovering well but Ben will remain in Nebraska with her the next few days focusing on neurology consultations.”

In comments to reporters over the summer, Sasse criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for trying “to divide America with culture wars” and called her actions “just the same bulls—.” His website says he supports Nebraska values, including the “sanctity of marriage.”

While protesters at UF called him homophobic and students and faculty questioned his ability to lead a diverse campus, Sasse repeatedly stated that he saw his role as UF president as different from his “federal political commitments.” He said he believed in the dignity of all people.

Sasse has pledged to meet with the university’s LGBTQ+ presidential advisory committee and keep Kent Fuchs, the outgoing UF president, as an advisor. Fuchs has been lauded for his on-campus efforts supporting LGBTQ students and staff.

Sasse will start the president’s job in February. He tweeted that he intends to resign from the U.S. Senate the first week of January.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.