By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006
A constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, backed by President Bush and conservative groups, was soundly defeated in the Senate yesterday after proponents failed to persuade a bare majority of all senators to support the measure.
Although most states have acted to prevent same-sex partners from marrying, seven Senate Republicans were wary of wading into the politically risky issue and voted against bringing the proposed amendment to a final vote.
Supporters went into yesterday's showdown knowing they could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment, much less the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and bring the measure to a final vote. But they had at least hoped to gain a simple majority of the Senate, or 51 votes. Instead, they fell short, 49 to 48.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and other GOP leaders had sought the vote as a way to help galvanize their party's conservative base at a time of flagging public confidence in the Bush administration and Congress. Some conservatives sought to put a positive face on the outcome, noting that proposed constitutional amendments typically encounter an uphill battle.
"We're making progress, and we're not going to stop until marriage between a man and a woman is protected . . . protected in the courts, protected in the Constitution, but most of all, protected for the people and for the future of our children in this society," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said after the vote.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the measure, said: "Most Americans are not yet convinced that their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."
Although conservative and liberal groups regard same-sex marriage as a litmus test, public opinion on the issue is less cut and dried. Recent polls show that most Americans oppose allowing gay men and lesbians to marry legally, but an ABC News poll released this week found that only 42 percent support a constitutional amendment to ban such unions.
A similar amendment failed 48 to 50 in the Senate in 2004. But earlier this week, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), the measure's chief sponsor, said it was gaining momentum. Advocates noted that 45 states have approved constitutional amendments or statutes to define traditional marriage in a way that would bar same-sex marriage. Moreover, evangelical Christian organizations and some black and Hispanic groups, all representing key voting blocs in November, also have supported a ban.
But two of the Republicans who had supported the same-sex marriage ban in 2004, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), voted against the amendment this time. After yesterday's roll call, Allard said: "We didn't get as many votes as we'd hoped." He added, "If it's up to me, we'll have a vote on this issue every year."
Gregg said in a statement that he had switched sides on the issue after becoming convinced that a Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in that state would not bleed into other jurisdictions. "Fortunately, such legal pandemonium has not ensued," he said. "The past two years have shown that federalism, not more federal laws, is a viable and preferable approach."
The other Republicans who voted against the amendment are: Sens. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.); Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine; and John E. Sununu (N.H.). Two Democrats voted in favor: Sens. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).
Most Democrats decried the vote as election-year pandering. "This is pure politics," Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) said on the floor before the vote. "This amendment we are debating will not pass, but it still risks stoking fear and divisiveness at a time when we should be trying to unite Americans."
Some political analysts share that view, and wonder if the issue could undercut Republican efforts to woo another vital voting group in November: moderates, who may interpret the Senate effort as a worrisome federal overreach.
Issues such as same-sex marriage "can really hurt Republicans in the suburbs," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, a midterm battleground state where Democrats are trying to pick up a Senate seat and at least three GOP-held House seats.
The debate in the Senate this week attracted numerous prospective 2008 presidential candidates, including Feingold and McCain, who both opposed the amendment, and Frist and Brownback, who were strong supporters.
Explaining his opposition on the floor yesterday, McCain said that although he believes that expanding the definition of marriage may be "of questionable public value," he also believes that the debate "is currently and properly being resolved in different ways, in 50 different states."
Democrats mocked Republicans for squandering floor time that could be devoted to debating the Iraq war, high gasoline prices and rising health-care costs. "It's no surprise that the American people are frustrated with the Republican Senate these days," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
But GOP members defended the action. "During the course of the debate on this amendment, a lot of the opponents . . . continued to repeat the mantra that 'this is not something the American people care about,' " Sen. John Thune (S.D.) said. "The American people have their own way of deciding what's important to them and what they care about."
Thune noted that South Dakota is one of seven states that will have a measure to ban same-sex marriage on the ballot this fall, "and I predict that it will pass by a very large margin."