Senate Republicans plan to use a hearing this week to force Democrats to take firm positions on same-sex "marriages," a prospect that could prove particularly dicey for some presidential candidates.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled a hearing tomorrow on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to find out if it has been threatened by recent court rulings.
"I believe we must do whatever it takes to safeguard the institution of marriage and ensure that the principles defined in DOMA remain the law of the land," said Mr. Cornyn, chairman of the panel's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights.
"This hearing will remind people why traditional marriage is so important for a healthy society, and will determine the extent of the threat posed to DOMA by judicial activism in light of recent court decisions and pending cases."
If Republicans determine that DOMA is under threat, they said they will consider drafting an amendment to the Constitution that would inoculate it from any future court rulings.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, has said he strongly supports turning DOMA into a constitutional amendment. After initially shying away from the issue, President Bush said an amendment remains an option he would consider.
A spokesman from the Howard Dean campaign, former Vermont governor and a Democratic front-runner, said yesterday that Mr. Dean supports overturning DOMA and strongly opposes an amendment.
David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, called DOMA and the current effort "a mean-spirited attack on gay families."
"Gay families are living in every corner of every county in every state of this country," Mr. Smith said. "Many of these families are raising children and they simply want the same rights, benefits and security granted to other families."
Just months ago, DOMA was a faint memory that had passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly in 1996. But this summer's Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas sodomy law caused some to wonder if DOMA was quite so settled.
In addition, similar laws have been challenged in state courts, such as in Massachusetts.
"There was no threat to DOMA, but now there is possibly a very real threat," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Mr. Cornyn. "Judicial activism has forced our hand."
Republicans point to several cases where courts have overruled laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
In 1993, for instance, Hawaii's supreme court struck down just such a law. Five years later, that ruling was rendered moot by an amendment to the state's constitution defining marriage as existing only between one man and one woman.
Republicans worry that even the U.S. Supreme Court -- dominated by GOP nominees -- might undo DOMA.
"There's a very real potential threat that they could overturn DOMA," Mr. Stewart said.
Opponents of a DOMA amendment dismissed those threats and accused Republicans of raising the issue simply to make political hay on the eve of a presidential campaign.
"The posturing we've seen so far has all the earmarks of political maneuvering to tee up an issue for next year's campaigns by toying once again with the U.S. Constitution," said one Democratic aide. "Federal law already defines marriage, and no court has questioned that law."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was one of only 14 senators and the only major contender for the Democratic ticket to vote against DOMA in 1996. Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida voted for the measure. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio weren't elected to Congress at the time.
The Edwards campaign didn't responded to inquiries yesterday about whether it would support a DOMA amendment.
Mr. Smith, of Human Rights Campaign, called it "a wedge issue in an election year. The timing is certainly suspect."
But Elizabeth Keys, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Conference, said no political games are at play.
"The marriage amendment is not an issue we even looked to put on the agenda," she said. "But we are ready to respond if the liberal Democrats continue to press the courts to undermine the legal status of traditional marriage."