White House spokesman grilled over Biden’s same-sex marriage comments

May 7, 2012

A day after Vice President Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is “absolutely comfortable” with gay couples having the same rights as heterosexual couples, the White House press secretary found himself furiously fighting back at suggestions that the president and vice president are out of step on same-sex marriage.

More than 50 times, reporters pressed spokesman Jay Carney on President Obama’s position on gay marriage at Monday’s White House briefing.

And each time, Carney’s answers elicited a new torrent of questions about the president’s views.

Does Obama support same-sex marriage?

“The next time the president has a news conference, if you want to ask him that, you’re certainly welcome to,” Carney said. “I do not have an update for you on the president’s personal views.”

Is Obama “comfortable” with men marrying men and women marrying women, as Biden is?

“The president is comfortable with same-sex couples, as the vice president said, being entitled to the same rights and the civil rights and civil liberties as other Americans,” Carney replied.

So, is marriage a civil liberty?

“You’d have to ask civil libertarians or lawyers,” Carney said.

What about a pro-gay-marriage plank in the platform at this summer’s Democratic National Convention?

“Well, on the issue of the platform, which hasn’t been developed yet, I would refer you to the DNC.”

Is Obama getting ready to change his views on gay marriage?

”Not necessarily.”

One question that did yield an answer was on whether Obama views marriage as a federal or a state issue.

“Well, he believes ... marriage is a state issue, and the states have the right to take action on it,” Carney said. “What he opposes is efforts to repeal rights that have been granted to LGBT citizens. He thinks that’s discriminatory and wrong.”

Does that mean, then, that Obama opposes bans on gay marriage but doesn’t support gay marriage itself?

“The record is clear,” Carney responded, “that the president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples.”

Along with that contentious exchange, the debate over Biden’s remarks reached a fever pitch Monday afternoon when MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell spoke with Stephanie Cutter, deputy manager of the Obama campaign, and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in back-to-back interviews .

Last week, Democrats had seized offense on the gay-rights issue over the departure of openly-gay foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign under pressure from social conservatives. In his interview with Mitchell, Priebus used Biden’s comments to try to put Democrats back on defense.

“Quite frankly, Andrea, the president’s position as it sits today is the same position of Mitt Romney, because isn’t the president saying that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman?” Priebus said.

“The difference [between Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Romney] is that Mitt Romney is being honest about his position the whole way through,” Priebus said. Romney, Priebus said, “is claiming that marriage should be between one man and one woman. ... What I’m suggesting to you, Andrea, is that Barack Obama will say and do anything, and will have other people around him say and do anything, to help him get elected.”

Obama campaign officials have been playing down Biden’s remarks, arguing that the president and vice president agree on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Cutter, who was interviewed directly before Priebus, kept to that message, saying that Biden “has made similar remarks before many times” and “was expressing the same policies as this president and this administration.”

Pressed repeatedly by Mitchell to explain the president’s views, Cutter declined to comment.

“I don’t want to parse the vice president’s words,” she said at one point. Asked again about the issue toward the end of the interview, she responded, “Andrea, I’m not going to make news on the president’s beliefs on gay marriage today.”

Adding to the pressure on the White House on Monday were moves by several Democrats, as well.

First, in response to a question in a TV interview Monday morning, Education Secretary Arne Duncan became the latest Obama administration official to publicly come out in support of same-sex marriage. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan has also previously expressed support for same-sex marriage.

Then came the news Monday afternoon that Caroline Kennedy, a national Obama campaign co-chair and the daughter of late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), is adding her voice to those calling for a gay-marriage plank in the national Democratic Party platform.

“There are few things in life more important than being able to marry and build a family with the person you love.  This fundamental right should be available to all Americans, including gay and lesbian couples,” Kennedy said in a statement released by the group Freedom to Marry, which supports a pro-gay marriage plank.

The Obama campaign has responded to the renewed focus on the president’s same-sex marriage views in part by seeking to turn the focus back on Romney.

As Carney was getting flooded with questions at the White House briefing, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt took to Twitter with a stream of critiques of Romney’s stance on gay rights.

“Romney promised he’d be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights then said he’d keep DADT, funded efforts to roll back gay rights in states,” LaBolt tweeted shortly before 2 p.m., just as the briefing was getting underway.

Five minutes later, another tweet.

“Romney also supports a federal amendment that would enshrine discrimination into the Constitution, roll back rights for gays and lesbians,” it read.

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