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Gay Marriage Amendment Getting a Presidential Push

Times Staff Writers

The campaign against gay marriage is scheduled to get the full White House treatment on Monday -- words from President Bush in front of assembled VIPs and a bank of television cameras.

Such a carefully staged production aims to confer the grandeur of the office on the push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But even before administration officials announced the event, some invitees denounced it as a sham.

“I’m going to go and hear what he says, but we already know it is a ruse,” said Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, which opposes gay marriage. “We’re not buying it. We’re going to go and watch the dog-and-pony show, [but] it’s too little, too late.”

Such comments have raised the prospect that the debate over gay marriage -- designed to galvanize one of Bush’s most important constituencies, social conservatives -- could instead exacerbate the president’s political headaches.

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The White House event will serve as a prelude to the Senate debate next week on the proposed constitutional amendment.

Supporters acknowledge they have little hope of reaching the two-thirds threshold -- 67 votes -- the measure would need to pass in the 100-member Senate. They probably won’t get the 60 votes needed to shut off debate and force an up-or-down vote on the proposal.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), adhering to a pledge he made months ago, is bringing up the proposed amendment for debate anyway. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill contend that even if its short-term prospects appear bleak, spotlighting its merits could lay the groundwork for eventual passage.

Democrats say the reason for the push is to rally conservative activists in advance of this year’s congressional elections.

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“Our country faces great challenges: record high gas prices, skyrocketing healthcare costs and an intractable war in Iraq,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “Yet instead of addressing these issues, Sen. Frist has chosen to put the politics of division ahead of real progress by pushing for a debate on a divisive amendment that will write discrimination into the Constitution.”

But if pleasing a key element of the Republican Party is the aim, the effort doesn’t appear to be working.

“Social conservatives are disappointed that there hasn’t been more action on the issues that were highlighted in the 2004 election,” said Gary Glenn, head of the American Family Assn. of Michigan.

He added: “Increasingly, social conservatives expect real action, not just politically timed attempts to motivate and organize the base.”

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Other complain that Bush, despite Monday’s planned event, has not put the full heft of the presidency behind the bid to ban gay marriage.

“President Bush’s position is actually quite good on many ... life and family issues, but he needs to get out front on them,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote in a message to supporters last week. There is also dismay among some activists over the wording of the amendment.

At least two prominent social conservative groups -- Concerned Women for America and the Traditional Values Coalition -- believe the language contains a loophole that would allow gays to seek civil unions.

The proposed amendment reads: “Marriage in the United States shall consist solely of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any state, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”

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Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, and others say the second sentence leaves open the option that gays and lesbians could enter unions other than marriage; and that’s a deal breaker for them.

On its website, the Concerned Women for America says it “does not support the Marriage Protection Amendment as currently worded because the second sentence is open to differing interpretations.”

Social conservative groups such as Focus on the Family, headed by James C. Dobson, support the amendment, despite the flaws they see in it.

“We would prefer stronger language, but we’re content with this language,” said Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president for public policy. “It leaves the issue of civil unions to the states. We recognize that this is the best we’re going to get at the federal level.”

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White House officials sidestepped questions about the issue for most of this week. On Friday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush had been an active opponent of gay marriage since he announced his support for the constitutional amendment in 2004.

And Snow dismissed criticism that the president had done little in the interim to make it a priority. “I don’t know how you define what a priority is,” Snow said. “The president has made it clear what he wants. He would like to see the Senate pass” the amendment.

GOP strategists are unsure how much the gay marriage debate will help the beleaguered party in November’s elections.

“There is a significant amount of disenchantment, but most of the disenchantment is on the economic side” of the administration’s performance, said veteran Republican strategist Eddie Mahe.

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Pat Toomey, head of the anti-tax Club for Growth, agreed. He said the GOP’s biggest problem was anger about federal spending and the deficit among fiscal conservatives and small-government advocates.

“I don’t think [the gay marriage amendment] is going to help much,” Toomey said. “The social conservative wing of the Republican Party is the part that’s happiest -- their most important thing was getting” conservatives added to the Supreme Court, he said, referring to the confirmations within the last year of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The gay marriage amendment is the source of a rare public disagreement between Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose youngest daughter is a lesbian.

During the 2004 campaign, Cheney said he believed decisions about same-sex marriages should be left to each state.

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Two years ago, when Republicans brought the amendment to the floor less than four months before the 2004 presidential election, 48 senators voted to end debate. The GOP gained Senate seats in the ’04 election, but not enough to appreciably improve the chances of reaching the 60-vote mark.

Even if the measure were to pass the Senate -- and then win a two-thirds majority in the 435-member House -- the arduous process for amending the Constitution could derail it. After clearing Congress, it would require ratification by three-fourths of the 50 states.


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