Same-sex marriage ban loses in Senate

6 in GOP cross lines to block consideration of amendment

Bush implores House to take up issue

July 15, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Republican-led Senate dealt a bipartisan rebuke to President Bush yesterday as it blocked a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, squelching for the moment a politically volatile measure that is a top priority for him and his conservative base.

Bush said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" by the defeat in the Senate, and he implored the House to take up the amendment.

The vote came after a debate that raised the profile of the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage just as the presidential race is entering an intense period. The action has political implications both for the president, whose core supporters are passionately devoted to banning gay marriage, and for Democratic candidate John Kerry, whose home state of Massachusetts has been at the forefront of attempts to allow it.

Champions of the proposed amendment said the vote was only the beginning of a long battle to attach language to the U.S. Constitution stating that marriage "shall consist only of a man and a woman."

"We're not going to lose the courage of our convictions, we're not going to sit on the sidelines, we're not going to be quiet, we're not going to give up," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who was a lead sponsor of the measure.

Kerry, who like most Democrats was against the amendment even though he says he opposes gay marriage, called the debate a divisive use of the Senate's time.

"The floor of the United States Senate should only be used for the common good, not issues designed to divide us for political purposes," said Kerry, who skipped the vote as he prepared for the Democratic convention in Boston. "The American people deserve better than this from their leaders."

Mobilizing voters

Yesterday's defeat for the gay marriage amendment - which came as no surprise to supporters and opponents - would seem to be a major setback for Bush. Despite his public push for the proposal, six Republicans crossed party lines to join Democrats in blocking it from even being considered.

Many of the senators differing with Bush said they also oppose same-sex marriages, but felt pressing for a constitutional amendment was unwarranted and inappropriate.

But the drive to consider the amendment energized the religious and cultural conservatives that make up his base, handing the president and groups that support him a cause celebre to take to voters this fall.

The amendment fell 12 votes short of the 60 it needed to overcome a crucial procedural hurdle, losing 50-48.

Six Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one independent to oppose considering the amendment, while three Democrats joined 45 Republicans to support debating the constitutional ban.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, said yesterday that despite the Senate defeat, the constitutional amendment "could very well come up this year" in the House.

"The debate has been joined, people are talking about it, and that's how we do debates on the national front," DeLay said.

Conservative groups are hoping to use the issue to mobilize voters in November. "If this doesn't cost people votes, I don't know what would," said Gary L. Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.

Bauer said his organization's political action committee would run advertisements in key states whose senators opposed the amendment, in efforts to prod voters to punish them at the polls in November. One such state, Bauer said, would be South Dakota, home to Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is locked in a tight re-election battle with former Republican Rep. John Thune, who supports the constitutional change.

Indeed, Democrats face a hard political calculation on the gay marriage issue, knowing that a majority of Americans - national polls say as many as two-thirds - oppose it, while their liberal base supports it.

Kerry's vice presidential pick, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, also missed the vote and stuck to the campaign trail, but neither is likely to escape attempts by Republicans to use their position on gay marriage as evidence that the two Democrats do not share most American's values and priorities.

Like Kerry, Edwards says he opposes gay marriage, but is against a constitutional amendment prohibiting it. They both support civil unions, which allow same-sex couples to enjoy the same benefits as married couples, but believe the issue should be state regulated.

"The Constitution should never be used as a political tool to divide Americans," Edwards said in a statement yesterday.

`Evenly split'

The debate over same-sex marriage poses risks for Bush as well. While national polls show most Americans opposed to gay marriage, they also show that far fewer - about half - back a constitutional amendment to ban it. A highly visible effort to push the constitutional ban may appeal to conservatives, but moderate and swing voters may be turned off by the issue.

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