Washington, D.C.--In a small room with no TV cameras and with sharp words between two senators, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to the Senate floor on May 18. The 10-8 vote followed party lines.
A vote in the full Senate is expected on June 6 or 7. A two-thirds majority--67 votes--is needed to pass the measure, and observers say it has far fewer than that.
Human Rights Campaign political director Samantha Smoot estimated that the amendment could get as many as 52 votes, but no more. This is four more than a similar measure got on a procedural vote in 2004.
But the committee vote gave the green light to Republicans to use the amendment to energize their anti-gay political base, gaybash on the Senate floor, and portray Democrats as pro-gay marriage just before the mid-term election in November.
Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, does not support the amendment and says he will oppose it on the Senate floor. But he said he felt it should be voted upon.
Specter is under constant scrutiny and pressure from the Republican base, and threats from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that he will lose his powerful chair if he fails to advance their socially conservative causes.
Those threats were realized two years ago when Specter faced a well-funded right wing primary opponent. Recovering from Hodgkin�s disease at the time, he squeezed out a narrow 51 to 49 victory.
That backdrop provided enough frustration and tension for fireworks before the vote, and a Democratic senator walking out of the meeting.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Specter had moved its location from the Judiciary Committee�s regular hearing room to the President�s Room, a small room behind the Senate chambers in the Capitol, which does not have enough chairs to accommodate the 18 committee members and is not open to the public. He also changed the meeting time.
In addition to the marriage ban amendment, the committee was to consider one to restrict flag burning, four bills and two nominations that day.
Irritated at both the amendment and the change of venue, Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold objected. He declared his affinity for the Constitution, his opposition to the amendment and his intention to leave the meeting.
�I don�t need to be lectured by you,� Spector shot back. �You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I. If you want to leave, good riddance.�
�I�ve enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman. See ya,� said Feingold as he left.
Feingold is emerging as a 2008 presidential favorite of the Democratic base.
The proposed amendment, sponsored by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard and 29 other Republicans including Ohio�s Mike DeWine, is officially called the �Marriage Protection Amendment.� It reads: �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.�
Anti-gays believe it is �necessary� to take the marriage issue out of the hands of judges, whom they believe will rule state constitutional marriage bans unconstitutional, as they have in Nebraska and Georgia.
LGBT activists believe the amendment writes discrimination into the Constitution, undermines the federalist system of government and promotes religious intolerance.
�It�s an election year, so it�s time to bring on the anti-marriage amendment. So reads the right wing playbook,� said National Gay and Lesbian Task Force public policy director Eleanor Acheson.
HRC�s president Joe Solmonese said, �As this amendment nears a vote on the Senate floor, it�s critical that fair minded Americans speak up and speak out against discrimination in the Constitution.�