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Senate Says No to Marriage Amendment

Times Staff Writer

The Senate on Wednesday blocked a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, delivering a defeat to President Bush but carving out a prominent role for the issue in the election campaign.

Many gays and lesbians hailed the outcome. Many social conservatives condemned it and promised not to abandon the cause.

“We’re not going to give up,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the amendment’s leading supporters.

Joan M. Garry, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, warned supporters: “This issue is not going away. There are going to be as many as 13 other similar amendments on state ballots between now and November, and the religious right is pushing hard to get them passed.”

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Only 48 senators -- 45 Republicans and three Democrats -- voted to cut off debate and send the amendment to a vote on the Senate floor. That was well short of the 60 required by Senate rules to break a filibuster.

Fifty senators, including six Republicans, voted to keep the amendment from an up-or-down vote. California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were in this camp, and some Republicans voted to cut off debate but said they would have voted against the amendment if they had had a chance.

Two senators missed the vote. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, the presumed Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees, were on the campaign trail.

Bush, in a statement, expressed disappointment but urged supporters to keep working to pass the measure. “Activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America, and neither should defenders of traditional marriage flag in their efforts,” he said.

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Cornyn said: “A ‘yes’ vote was a vote in favor of traditional marriage, and a ‘no’ vote or ‘I-didn’t-care-enough-to-show-up’ vote will be perceived as against traditional marriage.”

Democrats accused Republicans of pushing the measure to energize conservatives for the fall elections. Kerry, who opposes gay marriage but said he also would have voted against the amendment, said in a written statement that “even Republicans concede that this amendment is being offered only for political gains.”

“The floor of the United States Senate should only be used for the common good,” Kerry’s statement said. “Had this amendment reached a final vote, I would have voted against it, because I believe that the American people deserve better than this from their leaders.”

A number of the amendment’s opponents questioned whether the wave of same-sex marriages in San Francisco, Massachusetts and elsewhere this year was serious enough to call for tinkering with the U.S. Constitution, which has been amended just 17 times since the Bill of Rights was adopted.

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The amendment, just two sentences long, would define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.” A constitutional amendment must be approved by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

Several GOP senators saw a constitutional amendment as an unnecessary federal intrusion into states’ rights. Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the amendment “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans. It usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed, and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states do not believe confronts them, and which they feel capable of resolving should it confront them.”

Some Republicans also expressed concern that the amendment could have prevented states from passing legislation dealing with civil unions and domestic partnerships.

“This is about changing the Constitution, the most sacred of democratic documents the world has ever seen,” said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who, while declaring his opposition to gay marriage, objected to amending the Constitution.

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“Defining marriage is a power that should be left to the states,” added Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), who also opposed the amendment.

The amendment’s supporters, vowing to press ahead, noted that it could take years to pass a constitutional amendment.

“The battle has just begun,” said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), the amendment’s chief sponsor.

Added Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.): “For the good of civilization, we must press forward.”

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said: “Nobody wants to discriminate against gays. Gays have a right to live the way they want. But they should not have the right to change the definition of traditional marriage. That is where we draw the line.”

An aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said the senator’s office had received more than 30,000 letters and e-mails on the marriage amendment from constituents, overwhelmingly in support of the measure. By contrast, Brownback received 4,000 communications on the Medicare drug benefit last year.

The House is expected to take up the amendment on same-sex marriage in the fall. In the meantime, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday sent to the full House a bill that seeks to limit the ability of federal courts to hear challenges to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Supporters say the measure would ensure that states continue to decide marriage policy.

The House could debate the bill, which some legal scholars say could face constitutional challenges, as early as next week. Even if it passes the House, it faces resistance in the Senate.

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James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a Christian-based advocacy group, said in a statement after the Senate vote: “The Civil War, another great struggle in the history of the American people, was not won in a day -- and like that great cultural clash, we are certain morality will prevail.”

“This will be a big issue in November,” added Gary Bauer, a conservative leader and presidential candidate four years ago, at a Capitol Hill news conference of the amendment’s supporters.

“Either the Senate will eventually recognize the will of the American people, or there will be a new Senate,” Bauer said in an interview. “If you’re a senator, it’s very hard to go back to Arkansas ... and explain why it is you failed to do one thing that would guarantee that marriage in the United States would remain between a man and woman.”

Gay marriage has, for example, become an issue in the reelection battle of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Former Rep. John Thune, his GOP opponent, is running a radio ad expressing his support for the amendment.

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Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said the issue could help Bush by mobilizing conservative voters who had lost their enthusiasm for the president because of Iraq and the government’s budget woes.


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