The Man Upstairs Is in the House

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A02

The House of Representatives could not have been any more obvious if the sergeant-at-arms had wheeled an equine carcass into the well and the speaker had pummeled it with his gavel.

Yesterday's House debate on same-sex marriage was pure dead horse: The Senate last month rejected -- emphatically -- a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to ban same-sex marriage, so there was zero chance the amendment could be approved this year. But members of the House were answering to a Higher Authority.

"It's part of God's plan for the future of mankind," explained Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.).

Rep. Bob Beauprez (R- Colo.) also found "the very hand of God" at work. "We best not be messing with His plan."

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) agreed that "it wasn't our idea, it was God's."

"I think God has spoken very clearly on this issue," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a mustachioed gynecologist who served as one of the floor leaders yesterday. When somebody quarreled with this notion, Gingrey replied: "I refer the gentleman to the Holy Scriptures."

Democrats and a couple of sympathetic Republicans wondered whether, with the House planning to spend just five more weeks in session for the rest of the year, their colleagues were fiddling while Beirut burns.

"We have a conflagration in the Middle East, we have raised the debt ceiling four times to $9 trillion, and this is how the Republican congressional leadership chooses to spend its time?" demanded an agitated Rep. James Moran (D-Va.).

"Let's be honest," said Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), the chamber's only openly gay Republican. "This bill has been brought to the House floor by the leadership solely because of election-year politics." Citing an "affront to this institution," he pointed out that "this same legislation was considered in the Senate, where it didn't even receive a majority vote, much less the required two-thirds."

Kolbe's math was correct. The Senate managed just 49 votes for the measure, an increase of only one from a 2004 effort, despite the gain of four GOP seats. Yesterday, the House, in a 236 to 187 vote, managed to improve slightly on its 2004 performance but, to nobody's surprise, fell short of passage by 46 votes.

By election-year calculations, that was a victory. "I view today's vote as a successful failure," Pence announced at a defeat rally after the vote.

That's because so much of the legislative agenda this year is about making points, not policy. The Senate yesterday passed legislation to expand embryonic stem-cell research, even thought it faces a presidential veto. While the House was debating marriage yesterday, a Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing titled "Should We Embrace the Senate's Grant of Amnesty to Millions of Illegal Aliens and Repeat the Mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986?" Tomorrow, the House takes up legislation to protect the Pledge of Allegiance.

The House is calling this "values" week. In legislative output, it could be labeled "low-value" week, but that wouldn't give the chamber credit for other measures it is taking up, such as H.R. 4962, the "Captain George A. Wood Post Office Building Designation Act."

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), sponsor of the marriage amendment, used that logic to justify debate on her doomed bill. "Members of Congress are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time," she asserted. "Where are those who say we are wasting time when we are renaming post offices and federal buildings?"

Nobody had the heart to point out that post-office namings usually pass.

Not that proponents necessarily cared about passage. When Musgrave gave her passionate closing speech, floor leader Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) struggled to stifle a yawn. When a voice vote was held and the speaker declared that the amendment had passed, it was Kingston, not the Democrats, who demanded a recorded vote -- assuring defeat.

Even some of those who supported the legislation in principle found the timing a bit suspect.

"I'll be voting for the amendment," allowed Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). "I've got questions, though: Why now? Why this amendment?"

Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) said he was a co-sponsor of the amendment and ultimately voted for it, but not before he chided: "I'm deeply troubled that some may be using this amendment to score political points with their base. Why else would we be voting for an amendment that has no chance of becoming law since the Senate has already rejected it?"

At least a dozen lawmakers offered variations of that complaint, and Republican leaders were beginning to sound defensive. "This isn't a frivolous exercise," Kingston protested, citing terrorism, the Middle East and "the Appropriations Committee, which has passed nine out of, excuse me, 11 of its, excuse me, 10 of its appropriations bills."

Others sidestepped the relevance question.

"Marriage is not about love," volunteered Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who noted his 31 years of matrimony. "It's about a love that can bear children."

"The world did not start with Adam and Steve," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) told reporters.

Gingrey, the floor leader/gynecologist, posited that the debate was "about values and how this great country represents them to the world." After the vote, he elaborated: "This is probably the best message we can give to the Middle East in regards to the trouble we are having over there right now."

So that was it: The marriage debate wasn't about amending the Constitution; it was about quieting Hezbollah.

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