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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
June 9, 2006

U.S. marriage
ban falls short

For a second time, amendment fails
to get a predicted majority

Washington, D.C.--It�s hard to call it a �snub� because it was a White House event; but the staging of President Bush�s endorsement of the �Marriage Protection Amendment� on June 5 lacked the sort of luster usually associated with presidential appearances.

It�s hard to call it �Custer�s Last Stand,� but the U.S. Senate debate this week on the anti-gay constitutional amendment consisted largely of Republicans circling the wagons around their decision to devote three days of debate to the issue instead of acting on the war in Iraq, soaring gas prices, or one of 13 appropriations bills.

For months, the head count seemed to suggest that Senate Joint Resolution No. 1 would pick up four additional votes over its 48 to 50 loss in 2004.

Instead, when the vote was taken Wednesday morning, supporters had picked up only one vote: 49 for the motion to proceed on the bill, 48 against.

Even if it had gotten their predicted 52 votes, supporters didn�t have the 60 they needed to clear a procedural hurdle before they could consider the measure on its merits--nor the 67 needed to pass a constitutional amendment. But they had touted the expected four-vote gain as proof that momentum was moving in their direction.

Voting for �cloture� on the measure were 47 Republicans--including Ohio�s Mike DeWine and George Voinovich--plus two Democrats: Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Bill Nelson of Nebraska. Forty Democrats and Vermont independent Jim Jeffords were joined by seven Republicans against it. All were from New England except Arizona�s John McCain and Pennsylvania�s Arlen Specter.

The three senators not voting were Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Rockefeller of West Virginia, who opposed the measure, and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who supported it in 2004. Had they voted, it would have been a draw, 50-50.

A wobble in the �bully pulpit�

For weeks, the clamor of anti-gay activists had grown for more presidential and Republican leadership on the measure. Three days before the second launch of the amendment in the Senate, it appeared its right-wing supporters had won some concession: Reports were circulating that the president would hold a press event in the prestigious Rose Garden of the White House, standing next to the measure�s supporters to throw his weight behind it.

Instead, Bush stood in front of them, alone, at a lectern in a small, obscure room in the administrative office building next door to the White House. He looked uncomfortable. He read his remarks, kept a stiffened elbow grip on the lectern, and shifted his weight noticeably.

Rather than shoulder to shoulder in the bright sunshine, the right-wing�s most prominent leaders were scattered at random throughout the small auditorium�s 140 seats, filled mostly by middle-aged white women, a few black men with clerical collars, and several college-aged kids with glum expressions.

Southern Baptist official Richard Land sat at the edge of the room on one side, American Values official Gary Bauer on the other. Focus on the Family�s founder James Dobson sat in the middle aisle-middle row. The first of the auditorium�s seven rows were reserved for a dozen guests, including Prison Fellowship leader Chuck Colson, who took their places shortly before the president appeared.

�Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges,� said the president. �You are here because you strongly support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and I am proud to stand with you.�

The address was largely a repeat of a speech given during his weekly radio broadcast on June 3, but whenever the president referred to �activist judges,� the crowd applauded.

They did not applaud when the president reminded them that �America is a free society which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens.�

�In this country, people are free to choose how they live their lives,� he said. But when he added that �decisions about a fundamental social institution as marriage should be made by the people,� they applauded again.

Bush and senators on both sides of the proposed amendment cited the same evidence for their positions: 19 states had approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, another 26 had passed laws, and Congress overwhelmingly approved a statute in 1996 that allows the federal government and each state to ignore same-sex marriage approved by any other state.

For the supporters of the amendment, these things are evidence that the majority of Americans don�t want approval of same-sex marriages. For the opponents, they are evidence that the amendment is not needed.

Bias: a matter of �civil rights�?

�As this debate goes forward, every American deserves to be treated with tolerance and respect and dignity,� said Bush. �And all people deserve to have their voices heard.�

But, during his routine press briefing on June 5, White House press secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that no openly gay people had even been invited to �have their voices heard� during a meeting of the president with supporters of the legislation.

While Snow sought to explain the president�s willingness to stage an event for proponents of the legislation as a symbol of Bush�s genuine support for the bill, he characterized its timing as having been decided by the Senate leadership and having been �driven in many ways by the legislative calendar.�

�Whether it passes or not,� said Snow, �there have been a number of cases where civil rights matters have arisen on a number of occasions and they�ve been brought up for repeated consideration by the United States Senate and other legislative bodies.�

Snow�s characterization of the anti-gay marriage ban as a �civil rights matter� prompted questions from several reporters who sought clarification on whether Bush considers the proposal to be a civil rights issue.

Snow answered, �What we�re really talking about here is an attempt to try to maintain the traditional meaning of an institution that has maintained one meaning for a period of centuries, and for--�

�Do you equate that with civil rights?� asked the reporter again.

�No, I�m just saying, I think--well, I don�t know,� said Snow, flippantly. �How do you define civil rights? It�s your question.�

But even before the press conference, Snow had characterized the marriage ban as a �civil rights� matter. In a radio interview with Focus on the Family�s Dobson, taped before the press conference and aired after the event, Snow said such legislation often has to come up a number of times before people �feel a sense of urgency� and begin to move on the issue.

In his radio interview, aired June 6, Dobson noted that Lyndon Johnson had been very aggressive in using the power of the presidency to persuade Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, adding, �President Bush has not done that yet, to our knowledge.�

Snow told listeners that the political climate is much more partisan now than in 1964, and that �the problem now is not with Republican votes.� But Newsweek had just released an issue in which it quoted a Bush �friend� as saying, �I don�t think he gives a shit about it. He never talks about this stuff.�

In defense of the majority

Most reports about this week�s presidential event and Senate debate on the amendment focused squarely on the political motivations behind the timing of the event and the push for a vote. And despite Snow�s insistence that the �problem now is not with Republican votes,� not all Republicans were toeing the party line.

In bringing the measure to the floor, Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., led off Republican comments on the measure by saying that he opposes it.

Like most senators who spoke against the amendment, Specter said he believes marriage is a �sacred institution between a man and a woman� and that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which he supported, protects that institution. He said he held a vote on the measure in committee because he knew that supporters of the measure would use Senate rules to force a floor vote, much as senators supporting the Civil Rights Act did in 1964. But he quoted a libertarian think tank article as characterizing the constitutional amendment as �a solution looking for a problem.�

Specter�s remarks fanned the flames already created by widespread media reports for months: The vote was almost certainly scheduled to respond to the growing right-wing clamor for action and Republican need to shore up its base of voters for the November mid-term elections. With the president�s popularity plummeting in the polls, the political motivation became an even harder notion to dispel.

By June 6, the party split became even wider. Conservative Sen. John Warner, R-Va., spoke against the amendment, saying the second sentence of the measure gave him �great concern.�

The amendment consists of two sentences:

Marriage in the United States shall consist only 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.�

In their remarks, President Bush and supporters of the constitutional amendment claimed that it would do nothing to prevent states from providing legal rights to gay couples through civil unions or domestic partnerships. But as Warner and others noted, the meaning of the second sentence threw that claim into doubt and would almost certainly throw the issue back into court.

Splitting hairs

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, expected to be a Republican presidential candidate for 2008, said the measure is unnecessary and threatens states� rights to determine their own laws on marriage.

Another Republican presidential hopeful, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, tried to score points for his unannounced campaign by sending a letter urging a vote for the constitutional amendment. The letter suggested the sky is falling in Massachusetts since the state began issuing licenses to same-sex couples in May 2004. Among other things, he noted, the state has had to change the wording on its marriage license application forms and a teacher in one school read a fairy tale about a prince marrying a prince.

But Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire changed his vote from yes in 2004 to no this year, reportedly saying that the example of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts has led him to believe that chaos does not ensue.

Democrats who went to the floor spoke against the proposal, but nearly all of them also took the opportunity to say that they, too, believe marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples and that they voted for the �Defense of Marriage Act� in 1996.

There were Democrats who spoke against the constitutional amendment without speaking against gays, Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin being the most prominent. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton, an old fraternity buddy of President Bush�s at Yale, chastised supporters of the measure as �charlatans� who have dredged up the issue from their �emotional cesspools.� Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the amendment was not being pressed to preserve marriage but to preserve the majority of Republicans in Congress.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer ended Tuesday�s debate, saying she was �troubled by the suggestion� in the comments of many Republican senators speaking for the amendment �that gay Americans are responsible for a host of problems in society--from children born out of wedlock to poverty to divorce.�

�These comments are wrong,� said Boxer. �Gays and lesbians--they are God�s children, too.�

 

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