Declining to extend new rights to gays and lesbians, the Senate voted Tuesday to restrict the legal standing of same-sex marriages and rejected an attempt to bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The back-to-back Senate actions, immediately denounced by gay and lesbian groups, culminated a series of significant setbacks for homosexuals in the national political arena.
By a lopsided 85-14 margin, the Senate approved legislation dubbed the Defense of Marriage Act. The bill for the first time defines marriage for federal purposes as a union between a man and a woman and allows states to deny legal recognition to same-sex marriages performed outside their borders.
The measure also would bar the federal government from ever recognizing same-sex marriages licensed by states. That provision would preclude gay couples from all forms of spousal rights, such as joint income-tax returns, inheritance taxes, survivor benefits and health benefits for families of federal workers.
The legislation now goes to President Clinton, who disappointed gay supporters earlier this year by promising to sign it.
The employment-protection measure lost by the narrowest of margins, 50 to 49, which left supporters putting the best face on the defeat by proclaiming the near-miss a sign of substantial progress. Just 32 senators had supported the measure at the start of the year.
The bill would have tipped narrowly in the other direction but for the absence of Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), who had been expected to back the bill but was called away by a family emergency.
Pryor's vote would have resulted in a tie, which would have been broken by Vice President Al Gore, a supporter of the legislation.
Among the 85 lawmakers voting to adopt the legislation on same-sex marriages were 32 of the Senate's 47 Democrats. Both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted against the bill. Both voted for the bill banning job discrimination.
The two measures enjoy very different levels of public support. While nearly three-fourths of Americans oppose the extension of marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, 85%, according to recent polls, approve of laws that would shield homosexuals from employment discrimination.
"We all know what the polls show on this one," Boxer said during the gay-marriage debate on the Senate floor Tuesday. But she added: "We get elected here sometimes to go against the wind. If we don't do that, it diminishes us."
But Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) called the debate "a wake-up call for our society" and warned that the nation should not "undermine marriage by trendy moral relativism."
"It's a sign of our times and an indication of deep moral confusion in our nation that we are even having this debate. . . ," he said. "The issue of marriage has become a matter of self-preservation in our society."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the chief sponsors of the employment discrimination measure, promised after it had been defeated that the issue would be revisited.
"The march toward freeing Americans from discrimination is a continuum," he said. "But we are not there yet. . . . This issue is now on the front burner of the national agenda. This is an issue whose time has come."
Tuesday's vote on the anti-discrimination bill was largely symbolic, since the House had not been expected to take up corresponding legislation in the waning weeks of the current session of Congress.
The Senate vote on marital rights, by contrast, could have a real effect on gay men and lesbians since the legislation would not require states to recognize same-sex marriage licenses granted by other states.
Same-sex unions do not have the standing of heterosexual marriage in any of the 50 states. But the issue is in doubt in Hawaii, where the state's Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that denying gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses violates the equal-protection clause of the state Constitution unless the state can prove such discrimination is justified. The case was sent back to the circuit court for a trial, which began Tuesday.
Without the Defense of Marriage Act, a decision allowing gay marriages in Hawaii would obligate other states under the U.S. Constitution to recognize gay and lesbian weddings performed there.
Supporters of the measure argued that it would be wrong for one state court decision to alter a long-accepted definition of marriage nationwide. The bill, however, lets individual states recognize gay marriages if they choose.
Many senators plodded through carefully reasoned constitutional arguments Tuesday for and against such exemptions. Other supporters of the legislation warned that without it, Hawaii's expected recognition of gay marriage would expand the pool of those entitled to state and federal benefits owed to spouses. That, they warned, could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The most impassioned speeches came from lawmakers seeking to invoke the special role of marriage in Western civilization and in U.S. society. Democrats as well as Republicans took to the floor to portray marriage as a beleaguered institution under siege by legal forces and minority-rights groups.
In a speech that drew upon Greek poets, Roman chroniclers and the Bible, co-sponsor Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) warned that "when civilizations have waxed casual about the sanctity of marriage," they have inevitably been headed for extinction.
"Woe betide that society that fails to honor that heritage and begins to blur that tradition which was laid down by the creator in the beginning," Byrd said. The drive for the recognition of same-sex marriage, he added, "reflects a demand for political correctness gone berserk."
But opponents of the bill argued that the romantic commitments made by gay men and lesbians do little to undermine heterosexual marriages. Feinstein cited a litany of social woes, ranging from drugs to gangs to teenage pregnancy, and chastised supporters of the legislation for expending efforts on a bill she said was unnecessary and probably unconstitutional.
"If we had our priorities straight, we'd be voting on legislation addressing these issues today instead of this bill," Feinstein said.
Other opponents warned that if Congress were allowed to step in and exempt states from recognizing gay marriages conducted elsewhere, lawmakers would feel free to issue other exemptions. The result, said Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), would "dismantle the national unifying shield" and open heterosexual families to the meddling of Congress.
"Heterosexual Americans who ask themselves why they should care about the Defense of Marriage Act should be advised that 'the bell that tolls for them could soon toll for thee,' " said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).