Senate Scuttles Amendment Banning Same-Sex Marriage
By Helen Dewar and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; 5:12 PM
The Senate voted today to block a White House-backed constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriages, dooming its prospects for approval by Congress this year but ensuring it an emotionally-charged role during campaigns this fall.
The move to cut off debate on the bill got the support of only 48 senators -- 12 short of the 60 needed and 19 short of the two-thirds majority that it would take to amend the Constitution. Fifty senators voted against the proposal.
Republicans had hoped to win at least a simple majority in favor of proceeding with the amendment but were thwarted when six of their own colleagues joined all but three Democrats in voting to scuttle the measure without a vote on its substance. Several senators had said there would have been even more "no" votes if the showdown had occurred on substance rather than procedure.
The vote by the Republican-controlled Senate amounted to an embarrassing defeat for President Bush and conservative leaders who had pushed hard for approval of the amendment as a way of protecting traditional marriage. But Senate GOP leaders vowed to continue pushing for the amendment, hoping it will galvanize conservatives in the November election and help elect more supporters of the amendment.
"This issue is not going away," Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said.
Bush said this afternoon he was "deeply disappointed" that the amendment had been "temporarily blocked in the Senate." In a statement released by the White House, he said, "Activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America -- and neither should defenders of traditional marriage flag in their efforts. It is important for our country to continue the debate on this important issue, and I urge the House of Representatives to pass this amendment."
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate who will run against Bush in November, hailed the Senate's rejection of an issue "designed to divide us for political purposes." He said in a statement distributed by his campaign, "Even Republicans concede that this amendment is being offered only for political gains." Meanwhile, Kerry said, "the unfortunate result is that the important work of the American people . . . is not getting done."
His running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said in a separate statement, "The Constitution should never be used as a political tool to divide Americans."
The House of Representatives still may consider the issue. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said again today he plans to have the House vote this year on the amendment.
The Senate debate ended as it began, on a sharply partisan note, with Republicans contending that the institution of marriage was in jeopardy if opened to gays, and Democrats accusing Republicans of using a divisive issue to mobilize their conservative base.
"It's not about how to protect the sanctity of marriage," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "It's about politics -- an attempt to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage.
"No one wants to discriminate against gays," responded Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). "Simply put, we want to preserve traditional marriage."
Republicans who voted to block the amendment were Susan M. Collins (Maine), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), John E. Sununu (N.H.), Lincoln D. Chafee (R-I.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) and John McCain (Ariz.). Democrats who voted to bring up the amendment were Zell Miller (Ga.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.).
While most senators are on the record against same-sex marriage, many in both parties are reluctant to amend the Constitution for anything, especially to override state prerogatives on a divisive social issue. Some also worried that the amendment would be viewed as gay bashing by middle-of-the-road swing voters. Still others said voters want Congress to deal with issues such as the economy, health care and Iraq, rather than to spend time in a losing battle over marriage.
"It's a difficult issue," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (Utah), chief deputy whip for Senate Republicans, yesterday. There is a "widespread feeling among some Democrats as well as Republicans that traditional marriage is under attack," he said, but members "don't want to be seen as gay bashers."
Many Republicans and their allies among Christian groups said yesterday they would use the issue in this fall's elections to mobilize conservative voters to turn out for Bush and congressional candidates in critical races.
Under this win-by-losing strategy, GOP leaders hope to reassure conservatives that the party stands with them without angering moderates who are reluctant to amend the Constitution or target gays. Use of the issue would be confined to areas where it would do the most good.
"This is just the beginning of the process," said Gary Cass, of the Center for Reclaiming America, an advocacy group founded by the Rev. D. James Kennedy, a Florida evangelist. "We need to know who's with us and who's against us."
Republicans appeared to be laying down a political marker in scheduling the vote to occur less than two weeks before the Democratic National Convention, casting a spotlight on the Democratic presidential ticket's opposition to the amendment. Kerry and Edwards said earlier they planned to return if there were an up-or-down vote on the amendment. But after it became clear that the showdown would be over a procedural issue on cutting off debate, the two Democrats decided not to attend the session.
Plans for a vote on the amendment itself collapsed after Republicans insisted on offering a scaled-back alternative, limited to defining marriage, and Democrats balked.
The proposed amendment, which defines marriage as existing only between a man and a woman, also includes language that some have interpreted to cast legal doubt on civil unions.
Bush has recently stepped up his push for the amendment, mentioning it in a campaign appearance Friday and devoting his radio address to it Saturday. One GOP lawmaker said support for the constitutional ban may help Bush and other Republican candidates in rural sections of swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri. If these rural areas vote more heavily than urban areas -- as they often do -- then the strategy of keeping the issue stirred up will benefit Republicans, the lawmaker said.
But opinion polls generally show that most Americans agree with Kerry and Edwards in opposing same-sex marriage and a constitutional amendment to bar it, and some strategists question whether Bush and other Republicans are taking a risk in pushing the amendment.
As the battle for control of Congress has tightened in recent months, Republicans are looking to the marriage issue to boost their prospects in some critical races in the South.
But Democrats in many of these races -- Senate races in the Carolinas, Louisiana and Oklahoma -- have moved to neutralize the issue by embracing the proposed amendment, at least to a degree.
Political analysts say the controversy is likely to play little, if any, role in many other states, in part because a heavy emphasis on it could energize liberals as well as conservatives and antagonize swing voters. In some states, Republicans have had little to say about same-sex marriage.
The issue has received a heavy focus only in South Dakota, where former representative John Thune (R) used it recently in news conferences and radio ads in his race against Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who opposes the amendment.
In South Carolina, Democrat Inez Tenenbaum moved early to defuse the issue by endorsing the amendment, as did Reps. Brad Carson (D) in Oklahoma and Chris John (D) in Louisiana. Erskine B. Bowles (D) in North Carolina has said he would support the amendment as a last resort, according to his campaign.
But Democrats cannot escape the issue by endorsing the amendment because they are running on the same ticket as Kerry and Edwards, said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The issue may loom larger in some House races involving incumbents who vote against the amendment, according to political analyst Stuart Rothenberg and others.
Outside groups have used it to energize supporters and solicit contributions.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, has spent about $1 million on advertising and an additional $1 million on grass-roots lobbying against the amendment since March, according to spokesman Steven Fisher.
Leading the charge on the Christian right is the Family Research Council. It has helped to collect about 2.5 million signatures on petitions against same-sex marriage and organized broadcasts in which famous evangelists have urged conservative Christians to contact their senators.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company