The Senate, responding to crimes targeted against gays, voted overwhelmingly yesterday to strengthen the civil-rights-era law on hate crimes and extend its protections to include offenses based on sexual orientation, gender and disabilities.

The 65 to 33 vote, reflecting a significant increase in support for the measure, came as the Senate prepared to vote -- probably next month, just before the Democratic National Convention -- on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. The new hate-crimes rules were added to the $447 billion defense authorization bill for next year, a must-pass measure, in hope of enhancing its prospects for enactment. The Senate approved the same proposal in its 2000 defense bill, only to see it killed in negotiations with the House.

Before voting on the hate-crimes proposal, the Senate renewed its support for research on a new generation of nuclear weapons featuring low-yield "mini-nukes" and high-yield "bunker busters," rejecting Democratic arguments that it could lead to a new arms race.

The hate-crimes proposal would provide the first major expansion of the 1968 statute that allows federal prosecution of crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.

The measure would add the three new categories of protected groups and would eliminate a current restriction limiting federal intervention to cases where victims were engaged in federally protected activities, such as voting. It would also provide federal assistance for state and local authorities in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.

"I cannot think of a more decent and Christian thing to do. . . . When people are being stoned in the public square, we ought to come to their rescue," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who co-sponsored the proposal with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Smith, who supports a ban on same-sex marriage, told reporters he thought it important for the Senate to act against hate before dealing with the marriage issue. "Before you get to marriage, get over hate," he said. An early vote on the hate-crimes measure gave senators such as Smith a chance to vote against violence against gays before they vote against allowing them to marry.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and other foes of the proposal contended that the prosecution record for hate crimes should be studied before legislation is passed and cautioned against "criminalizing thought."

While acknowledging that the proposal may face problems in negotiations with the House, Smith said he had been assured by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) that he would work to keep it in the defense bill.

Eighteen Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the hate-crimes proposal, which was also backed by Warner and all other D.C. area senators.

In the earlier action on nuclear arms, the Senate defeated, 55 to 42, an effort by Kennedy and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to cut $36.6 million from the defense bill for research on the two projects.

The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator would be designed to destroy deeply buried facilities with a force equal to about 10 times the impact of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in the final days of World War II. The smaller weapons, described by supporters as a necessary option to protect the United States against new threats, would have the force of less than half the yield of the Hiroshima bomb.