WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden gave a nod to same-sex marriage Sunday by saying he is comfortable with the idea of "men marrying men" and "women marrying women" having the same rights as heterosexual couples.
In an interview on "Meet the Press," Biden declined to rule out the possibility that, in a second term, President Obama might move from his position of supporting civil unions to backing same-sex marriage.
Biden prefaced his comments with the caveat that the president sets administration policy, and then said: "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."
In the strictest reading of the transcript, Biden didn't advance the administration's position on the issue. The president has said for months that his thoughts on gay marriage are "evolving," and he hasn't ruled out that he may one day support it.
But Biden's choice of words and his expression of personal empathy for same-sex couples suggest it is at least a subject of discussion at the White House.
Listeners seeking a signal may have heard one, but the White House can easily deny that it sent a message. Senior administration officials said later in the day that there had been no change in the official position and that Biden said only what the president had said before. Biden's office reiterated that.
But gay rights groups can seize on his words and use them to rally support for the president's reelection effort, which explicitly notes Obama's record on gay rights as it shifts into full campaign mode.
Obama's new campaign speech reminds voters that he ended the "don't ask, don't tell" policy governing gays in the military.
"We're not returning to the days when you could be kicked out of the United States military just because of who you are or who you love," Obama said Saturday.
Biden elaborated further Sunday when he was asked whether his views on the subject had evolved.
"Look, I just think that the good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about, it's a simple proposition: Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love?" Biden said. "And that's what people are finding out, is what all marriages at their root are about, whether they're marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals."
"That's what I believe," Biden said after pointing out that it was the president who would decide administration policy.
Gay rights activists said they liked what Biden said but were curious about how far Obama was willing to move, and when.
"We are encouraged by Vice President Biden's comments, who rightly articulated that loving and committed gay and lesbian couples should be treated equally," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Now is the time for President Obama to speak out for full marriage equality for same-sex couples."
Biden didn't say that he was pushing to support gay marriage in a second Obama term, but he didn't rule it out.
Asked whether it was a possibility, Biden stammered and said, "I don't know the answer to that."