Thursday, June 17, 2004

Senate Republican leaders have scheduled the Senate vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman for the week of July 12, just two weeks before Democrats convene in Boston for their presidential nominating convention.

“There’s always an argument you should wait for just one more court decision — at some point you’ve just got to move forward,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

“They want to get it done, and it’s the last chance to get it done,” said one Senate Republican aide involved in the process, who said setting the vote for that week should leave Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry without any excuses for missing the vote.

“They were probably trying to make it convenient for a certain senator to get back and vote,” the aide said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and the person who sets the floor schedule, yesterday informed fellow senators and key backers about his plan.

Mr. Kyl, a member of the Senate Republican leadership team, said Mr. Frist is the senator most in touch with the White House and party leaders nationwide. His decision to go forward “is reflecting a general consensus among Republicans,” Mr. Kyl said, that they want a vote on the issue this year before the November election.

Several proposals have been introduced, but Mr. Frist is backing the version sponsored by Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, which says that “marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.”

The amendment then goes on to say that states are not required to recognize a same-sex “marriage” approved by another state.

A similar version is being sponsored in the House by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado Republican, though House leaders have not scheduled a vote. President Bush has not backed a specific amendment, but has said he supports the thrust of the Allard-Musgrave proposal.

With local officials in San Francisco and elsewhere issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples and after the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to declare a state constitutional right to same-sex “marriage,” passing such an amendment has become a priority for religious conservatives.

Yesterday, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to pass a resolution backing a federal marriage amendment. The resolution said that “the union of one man and one woman is the only form of marriage prescribed in the Bible as God’s perfect design.”

Democratic lawmakers were mostly silent on the Republicans’ decision to set the vote.

“I wasn’t even aware that it had been” set, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Kerry’s campaign said he had no comment. A spokesman for Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and the top Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, also declined to comment.

Aides said the bill will go directly to the Senate floor, bypassing the full Judiciary Committee, where both supporters and opponents said it might not have passed. Right now, it isn’t expected to have the votes to pass the Senate either.

“We are cautiously optimistic we have the votes necessary to block this discriminatory measure, but we’re taking absolutely nothing for granted,” said Cheryl Jacques, president of Human Rights Campaign, a homosexual rights advocacy group that is leading the fight against the amendment.

And the amendment’s backers said they are ready for this fight to stretch into future years.

“We are preparing for the long haul because this is an issue of such importance,” said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, which drafted the original amendment language. “It’s the kind of thing where we’re looking at a multiyear debate.”

An amendment to the Constitution must pass both chambers by a two-thirds vote, then be ratified by legislatures in three-fourths of the states.

Mr. Daniels said the issue has been forced by the courts, and legislative action is appropriate.

“The reason this is good is it’s the beginning of this being taken from behind the closed door of the courts,” he said.

A CBS News poll released at the end of May found that 60 percent of those surveyed supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, including 78 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats.

But the same poll found voters overwhelmingly did not want the issue to be part of this year’s campaign, with just 9 percent saying it should be a “major part,” 20 percent saying a “minor part,” and 70 percent saying no role at all.

Ms. Jacques said the entire push for the amendment is political — “everything about it, from the national effort to change the United States Constitution and mobilize a radical right base for President Bush’s election, to the state initiatives, which are all tied to the November election and getting the president’s extreme conservative base out.”

She said even though they can defeat the amendment, she doesn’t think the issue deserves the time of the Senate.

“I will be happy that it’s put to rest, but any time the country is forced to talk on the floor of the United States Senate about an unseemly conversation … that is not a good day for America,” she said, adding that “there is no other way to characterize this conversation than unseemly.”

Also yesterday, the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Mr. Kerry for president.

“This is the best candidate running for president ever on issues of equality and fairness for all Americans, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans,” Ms. Jacques said, citing Mr. Kerry’s vote against the Defense of Marriage Act and his opposition to President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for homosexuals in the military.

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