President Bush came under fire from some social conservatives yesterday for saying he will not aggressively lobby the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage during his second term.
Prominent leaders such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and many rank-and-file Bush supporters inundated the White House with phone calls to protest Bush's comments in an interview published Sunday in The Washington Post. "Clearly there is concern" among conservatives, Perkins said. "I believe there is no more important issue for the president's second term than the preservation of marriage."
Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family said, "I am sure [White House] phone lines are lighting up all over."
In the Post interview, Bush, for the first time, said senators have made it clear to him the amendment has no chance of passing unless courts strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which protects states from recognizing same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere. Challenges to the act are pending in state courts from California to Florida.
"It was not articulated that way in the campaign," Perkins complained.
Social conservatives who helped stoke record turnout for Bush in the 2004 election expressed concern that he is dropping the issue he passionately touted during the campaign now that he has been reelected. "The president is willing to spend his political capital on Social Security reform, but the nation is greatly conflicted on that issue," said Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family. "The nation is united on marriage. The president's leadership is desperately needed." Minnery and Perkins called the White House to complain about Bush's position.
Some conservatives, however, said they trust Bush will still push for the amendment, despite his remarks. Janet M. LaRue of Concerned Women for America, a Washington-based group that seeks to reverse the nation's "moral decline," said Bush was pointing to the realities of a divided Senate. "I think he was speaking practically about the fact that there are senators who are waiting to see whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act is struck down by a court," a position LaRue called "foolish."
Still, she said, "The responsibility for an amendment lies with Congress, not the White House."
Bush, whose reelection strategy was predicated on record-high turnout among social conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, will need the support of his base to help pressure Congress to approve his domestic agenda over the next four years, Republicans say. While Bush remains wildly popular among most conservatives, some are wondering whether the president will play down social issues in the second term as he seeks to cement a legacy focused more on cutting taxes and creating private Social Security retirement accounts. Last week, some Republicans complained that Bush's choice to head the Republican National Committee, Kenneth B. Mehlman, has picked an abortion rights supporter to be co-chairman.
The president is sensitive to the concerns of social conservatives and has tried to reassure them over the past two days that he remains as committed as ever to outlawing same-sex marriage, according to White House officials. Privately, some Bush advisers say the president is uncomfortable picking divisive political fights over abortion and same-sex marriage that cannot be won.
"The president will continue to advocate the need for a constitutional amendment to protect the sanctity of marriage," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday. "It is something he believes very strongly in. In fact, he has already spent a lot of political capital on getting that initiative moving."
"Remember, in the Senate, you have to have 67 votes to move a constitutional amendment forward," McClellan added. "And there are a number of members of the Senate that have said that they're not open to it until the Defense of Marriage Act faces a serious legal challenge. So that's just talking about the legislative reality."
Social conservatives agree it is an uphill fight in the Senate. But they worry Bush is undermining the chances before the second-term debate even begins. "It seems wrong to signal at the start of the new Congress that nothing is likely to happen," Minnery said. "We would like him to stoke this first, so when there is this precipitating event, we can hit the ground running."