WASHINGTON -- The Senate opened debate yesterday on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, an issue Republican strategists hope will help drive conservative voters to the polls during fall congressional elections.
At the White House, President Bush tried to rally support for the amendment, even though its backers say it is expected to fall well short of the 67 votes needed for passage.
"Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges," Bush told supporters. It was the second time in three days that the president spoke in favor of the amendment, a topic he has barely touched since he energized conservative loyalists with his support for the measure during the 2004 presidential campaign.
In a 10-minute address interrupted 11 times by applause, the president repeatedly criticized courts and judges - calling them "activist" and "over-reaching." If a court overturns the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Bush said, "every state would have to recognize marriage as redefined by judges in, say, Massachusetts or local officials in San Francisco, no matter what their own state laws or their state constitutions say."
The 1996 law says that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states. But supporters of the constitutional amendment say the law faces challenges in several states, making the amendment necessary. They say the country's social foundation is threatened by moves in Massachusetts and elsewhere to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.
Opponents say that marriage laws are the purview of the states, not the federal government. They complain the amendment would formalize discrimination against a social group.
On the Senate floor, supporters of the amendment echoed Bush's arguments.
"We're here today at the threshold of the democratic process - that is, a constitutional amendment - because marriage is under attack," said Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican who is the amendment's sponsor. "I believe that because the institution of marriage is too precious to surrender to the whims of a handful of unelected activist judges, now is the time to send to the states a constitutional amendment that protects traditional marriage and prevents judges from rewriting our traditional marriage laws."
A procedural vote on the measure is scheduled for tomorrow. Democrats accuse Republicans of scheduling the issue for debate to appease conservative activists and help organize voter turnout in November. Republicans appear to face the toughest election challenge from Democrats since they won a majority in Congress in 1994.
"For me it is clear the reason for this debate is to divide our society, to pit one against another," said Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "This is another one of the president's efforts to frighten, to distort, to distract, and to confuse America. It is this administration's way of avoiding the tough, real problems that American citizens are confronted with each and every day."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that "there's a political dimension" to the president's speech, because the measure was before the Senate, but added in response to a question, "I don't think it's posturing."
As for making gay marriage a priority when other issues, such as the war in Iraq, have driven Bush's poll numbers down, Snow said the president "can deal with more than one issue at a time."
The president spoke in an auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.
Bush's position on the marriage amendment is at odds with that of Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian. Cheney has said Americans should be more accommodating of relationships that differ from traditional marriage, and that a federal policy may not be needed.
Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.