Bush Re-Enters Gay Marriage Fight

President Bush and Vice President Cheney walk to the Rose Garden for the swearing-in of Rob Portman, former congressman and U.S. trade representative, as director of the president's Office of Management and Budget.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney walk to the Rose Garden for the swearing-in of Rob Portman, former congressman and U.S. trade representative, as director of the president's Office of Management and Budget. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

President Bush plans to wade back into the emotional debate over same-sex marriage for the first time in his second term beginning today with a pair of speeches pressing the Senate to approve a constitutional amendment next week defining marriage as the union of a man and woman.

Bush, whose opposition to marriage between gay partners helped power him to reelection in 2004, has remained largely silent on the issue since, much to the consternation of conservatives who complain he has not exerted leadership. Now, with midterm elections approaching, he is returning to a topic that galvanizes an important part of the Republican base.

The president intends to devote his weekly radio address today to the Marriage Protection Amendment and has invited supporters to the White House on Monday for another speech promoting it, according to aides and activists. The Senate is set to begin debating the amendment Monday and vote Wednesday, but both sides believe sponsors do not have the 67 votes it needs for approval despite Bush's endorsement.

"His position is that he thinks people ought to have the freedom to lead their private lives," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. "He also does not believe that that means that you have to redefine the institution of marriage. He believes the institution of marriage is between a man and a woman."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he decided to call for a vote on the amendment because states that banned same-sex marriage in the last 18 months are under assault in the courts. "Unelected activist judges are tearing down state laws in nine states today," Frist said on "Fox News Sunday" last weekend. "That's why I will take it to the floor of the Senate."

But critics said the only reason Bush and Frist are reviving the issue is for election-year pandering to conservative voters, who, polls show, have grown disaffected with the president for various reasons.

"They understand that they are in deep trouble and they need to do anything they can to appease their people, which is the right-wing base," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization. "This is an age-old political tactic, which is when everything is falling down around you -- as it is for the administration -- you go for your base."

Ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage in 11 states in 2004 helped drive up conservative turnout, and analysts believe that may have been a deciding factor for Bush. But supporters say the issue energizes voters beyond the base, including independents and even Democratic-leaning voters, such as culturally traditional African Americans.

The issue has already emerged in some of this year's races.

In one North Carolina congressional district, for instance, Republican challenger Vernon Robinson has aired a radio ad attacking Democratic Rep. Brad Miller with mariachi music playing in the background: "Brad Miller supports gay marriage and sponsored a bill to let American homosexuals bring their foreign homosexual lovers to this country on a marriage visa. If Miller had his way, America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals."

Miller voted against the Marriage Protection Amendment in 2004, saying the matter should be left to the states. "The republic has survived pretty well for 220 years with marriage based on state law," he said yesterday. "I don't think we ought to amend the constitution every time a politician wants to campaign on an issue." Miller said he supports North Carolina law banning same-sex marriage but is open to civil unions between gay partners.

The Marriage Protection Amendment would ban same-sex marriages, but sponsors say it would allow state legislatures to approve civil unions with similar benefits for gay couples. In its entirety, it reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."

A constitutional amendment requires approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states. The president has no formal role in the process. In 2004, a similar amendment with somewhat different wording failed in the Senate, 48 in favor and 50 opposed, and in the House, 227 to 186. Both sides believe supporters have picked up four votes in the Senate since then, which would result in a 52-vote majority, well below two-thirds.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans do not support same-sex marriage but concluded that opposition has softened in the last two years. In 2004, 63 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and 30 percent approved. In March, 51 percent opposed it and 39 percent supported it.

Bush has given the appearance of a reluctant supporter of banning same-sex marriage. In an interview with The Washington Post in January 2005, he said he did not plan to lobby senators for the amendment because it did not have much chance of passing, infuriating conservative supporters. Even this week, he has sent mixed signals. The White House told activists that Monday's speech would be in the Rose Garden, but after criticism that he was using such a symbolic site, the White House moved it to an office building next door.

Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, which drafted the constitutional amendment, said the White House does not want to appear to be driving the debate but expressed satisfaction that Bush comes through at key moments.

"There are some who would prefer to have the president of the United States act like a conservative interest-group leader," Daniels said. "But he's not. He's the president of the United States. They don't want to be seen as pushing the issue."

"But when salient moments arrive," Daniels added, Bush speaks out.

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