WASHINGTON -- House lawmakers, acting on a potent social issue in the heat of campaign season, embraced a measure yesterday that would define marriage as a heterosexual union only and limit marriage rights for gay men and lesbians.
In an overwhelming 342-67 vote, a majority of Democrats joined Republicans in approving the "Defense of Marriage Act," sending it to the Senate, where the bill is expected to pass handily.
"The vote today reflects exactly what people in this country feel," said Rep. Robert Barr, a Georgia Republican, the principal author of the measure. "America today is not ready to redefine marriage" in ways that would recognize same-sex unions. "America will not be the first country in the world that throws the concept of marriage out the window."
The "Defense of Marriage" bill would define marriage, for purposes of federal benefits, as a union between a man and a woman. It would also allow states the right not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.
With polls showing that as many as seven in 10 Americans oppose marriage rights for homosexuals, the issue has become a minefield for many lawmakers who are inclined to favor homosexual rights.
Public reluctance on the issue has prompted President Clinton to say that he will sign the bill if it passes in its current form.
But while reiterating the president's willingness to sign the bill into law, the White House decried the debate yesterday as "gay-baiting, pure and simple," and chastised Republicans for rushing the politically sensitive issue onto the legislative docket during the election season.
"It's a classic use of wedge politics designed to provoke anxieties and fears," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "That being the case, though, the president has very strong views, personal views, and he has to act consistent with those views."
The "Defense of Marriage Act" bill is one of several measures touted as "family values" legislation that conservative Republicans are trying to advance over the next several months.
Conservatives hope that the bills, which include a parental rights act and a bill relaxing bars on state aid to religious institutions, will be embraced by presumptive Republican nominee Bob Dole and adopted as part of the Republican platform.
The entire Maryland delegation voted in favor of the bill.
Gay rights groups and their allies in the Senate, acknowledging that the measure will pass both chambers, hope to sweeten a bitter defeat by adding language to forbid employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, the "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" could be added to the same-sex marriage bill when it is taken up by the Senate early this fall.
Barr and other Republicans called the gay activists' strategy an effort to short-circuit the same-sex marriage bill and said that Republicans will fight any effort to add the "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" as a rider to the measure.
The bill was prompted by a recent ruling by Hawaii's Supreme Court that would extend legal recognition to same-sex marriages performed in Hawaii. The case is not settled, however, because the justices have given a lower court an opportunity to offer counter-arguments.
If the high court's ruling stands and Congress does not act, many believe the U.S. Constitution would require all states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Hawaii. Under the "full faith and credit" clause of the U.S. Constitution, each state is obliged to recognize marriages performed legally in any other state.
The bill approved by the House would leave it to each state's legislature to decide whether that state will recognize homosexual unions.
Opponents argued this week that the measure is not constitutional. They said that the Constitution requires states to recognize each others' "public acts, records and judicial proceedings" and that Congress cannot alter that principle.
But Attorney General Janet Reno, responding to queries by the White House, has said that she believes the bill would withstand constitutional challenges.
Its passage would stymie gay and lesbian couples who seek the legal benefits of state and federal recognition -- including Social Security or veterans' benefits owed to surviving spouses -- and recognition as next-of-kin for medical, estate and inheritance reasons.
Barr charged yesterday that opponents of the bill sought to "throw open the doors of the U.S. Treasury to be raided by the homosexual movement."
The House rejected yesterday an effort to have the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, tally the potential cost of extending federal benefits to gay men and lesbians who would choose to be married.
Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, the only openly gay Republican in that chamber, called that refusal a "mean political game."
Pub Date: 7/13/96