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Senate Blocks Ban on Gay Marriage

Times Staff Writer

After three days of often perfunctory debate, Senate conservatives failed Wednesday to win enough support to proceed with an election-year constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

A procedural motion to schedule an up-or-down vote on the measure garnered 49 votes; it needed 60 for passage. Forty-eight senators opposed the motion.

The amendment’s supporters were disappointed that the motion was not backed by more than half the 100-member chamber, a symbolic mark they had hoped to reach.

All the same, the supporters said they had achieved a victory of sorts: They gained one vote more than they had in 2004, the last time the matter was debated in Congress.

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“We’re going to continue to press this issue,” Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), the amendment’s sponsor, declared after the vote. “If it’s up to me, we’ll have a vote on this issue every year. I think it’s important to the American people.”

Democrats denounced the effort to amend the Constitution as a ploy to rally conservative voters at a time when polls show flagging support for the Republican Party and President Bush.

“The Constitution is too important to be used for partisan political purposes,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said on the Senate floor.

“It is not a billboard on which to hang political posters or slogans seeking to stir public passions for political ends.”

The House is expected to take up the same measure next month, even though it almost assuredly will not be approved there either.

“This is a big issue with lots of our members and, frankly, with lots of Americans,” said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “So bringing this issue to the floor, allowing it to be debated, voted on, I think is a good idea.”

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples, but they also show that a majority does not support amending the Constitution to make the point.

The amendment’s supporters argue that the definition of marriage is under threat from court challenges in various states and that the best way to prevent same-sex marriages from gaining legal status is to amend the Constitution.

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“We’re making progress in the Senate. We’re making progress across the country, in the states,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading proponent of the amendment. “And we will not stop until marriage as the union of a man and a woman is protected in this country, protected in the courts, protected in the Constitution, but most of all, protected for the people and for the future of our children in this society.”

Seven Republicans were among the 48 senators who voted against limiting debate on the amendment: Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine; Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu, both of New Hampshire; Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; John McCain of Arizona; and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Two of them -- Gregg and Specter -- changed their votes from 2004, when a ruling by Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriages in that state.

“At the time, there was genuine cause for concern that the Massachusetts Supreme Court, or any other court, would cause legal chaos across the country and force same-sex marriage to be recognized in states like New Hampshire that prohibit such union,” Gregg said in a statement. “Fortunately, such legal pandemonium has not ensued.”

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McCain, who is expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, has been trying to woo conservatives, but he risked their ire by joining those voting to derail the amendment. He expressed support for defining marriage as a union solely between a man and a woman but said such laws should be left to the states.

Although GOP congressional leaders have pushed for consideration of the proposed amendment in part to energize social conservatives -- a key element of the party’s constituency -- the week’s Senate debate generated few sparks.

Much of the comment was predictable, with arguments largely a rehash of points made two years ago.

Two Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, broke with their party colleagues to support the motion for a vote on the amendment.

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Nelson, like many of the amendment’s supporters, argued that the measure was aimed at restricting “activist judges,” not at gays and lesbians.

Three senators were absent for the vote.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said through a spokesman that he would have voted to end debate on the amendment, adding that if it had come to a vote, he would have opposed its passage.

The other two absentees were Democrats who probably would have voted against the procedural motion, as well as the amendment itself -- Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

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A constitutional amendment requires approval from at least two-thirds of each chamber of Congress and then ratification by at least three-quarters of the states.

President Bush, who sought to build support for the amendment by headlining a White House rally for it on Monday, signaled after Wednesday’s vote that his push for it would continue.

In a statement, he expressed disappointment about this year’s outcome, but added: “Our nation’s founders set a high bar for amending our Constitution, and history has shown us that it can take several tries before an amendment builds the two-thirds support it needs in both houses of Congress.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading advocacy group of religious conservatives, was more critical of the Senate.

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“The people have spoken on this issue. But the Senate has ignored them,” he said in a statement. “Tens of millions have voted to defend marriage,” but the senators who opposed ending debate and the three who did not vote “are serving as ring bearers for same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization that opposes what it describes as the “homosexual lifestyle,” described the vote as an “outrage.”

Liberal and gay rights groups praised the vote. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, called it a “resounding defeat against discrimination.”

“President Bush and the Republican leadership gambled their dwindling political capital on a discriminatory amendment and came up empty,” Solmonese said.

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