On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate rejected the Marriage Protection Amendment that President George W. Bush and Republicans hope to use to rally voters in the upcoming November elections.
The 49 to 48 vote fell mainly along party lines with two Democrats, Bill Nelson of Nebraska and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, supporting the cloture vote, a parliamentary procedure that must receive 60 ayes and was required prior to a straight up or down vote on the amendment. Two key Republicans—Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and John McCain from Arizona—voted no on the cloture motion.
The measure, sponsored by Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, would—if approved by two thirds of both houses of Congress and by three quarters of the states—have altered the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between only one man and one woman. A much disputed second sentence holds the potential of also eviscerating state and local laws enabling civil unions, domestic partnerships, and other forms of legal recognition.
Thus, even though more senators voted for the cloture motion than against it, the measure fell well short of the 60 votes needed to end debate and bring it up for full consideration, never mind the 67 votes required for passage.
Democratic opponents of the amendment claimed the vote was brought up this month to bolster Republican support among Christian conservatives for what many consider will be a tough election year. Even though the amendment was assigned the number S.J. Res. 1, indicating it was the number one legislative priority in the Senate, it was not raised until five months before the November elections.
The action began early Saturday with Bush using his weekly radio address to press for the amendment’s passage.
“An amendment to the Constitution is necessary because activist courts have left our nation with no other choice,” the president said. “The constitutional amendment that the Senate will consider next week would fully protect marriage from being redefined, while leaving state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.”
Bush stayed with that message in a press conference on Monday, June 5, just moments before debate began in the Senate. A smiling, upbeat Bush addressed an audience of supporters in the Old Executive Office Building just blocks from the White House, after an earlier plan to gather in the Rose Garden was scotched. Among those invited were representatives of the ultra-conservative groups Focus on the Family and Exodus Ministries, an ex-gay organization that runs conversion therapy programs that have found virtually no support in the psychotherapeutic profession.
“I am proud to stand with you,” Bush said.
Across town, the Human Rights Campaign, a gay political group, held its own rally on the steps of the Capitol building. They brought with them almost 100,000 postcards signed by voters urging senators to vote against the amendment.
Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader, opened the debate with the declaration that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but that the principles of Federalism dictated the matter be left to the states.
“This is another one of the president’s efforts to frighten, to distort, to distract and confuse America,” Reid said.
He was followed by Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who declared “the Constitution is too important to be used for such a partisan political purpose... we should be addressing Americans’ top priorities including ways to make America safer, the war in Iraq, rising gas prices...”
Supporters of the anti-gay amendment, almost to a person, trotted out several large graphs and charts to show how marriages declined and out-of-wedlock births increased after gay marriage and civil unions were legalized with corresponding statistics on how children are better off when raised in a married heterosexual household, an inaccurate representation of the research on the question.
“Once the process of redefining marriage begins, it is but a short step to the dissolution of marriage as an institution all together,” said Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican.
Brownback, along with Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, both claimed religious freedom would be in jeopardy if same-sex marriage were legalized.
“People will lose religious freedom if they hold a different view. If they say: ‘We believe marriage is a union of a man and a woman’ ...now are you going to find that somehow discriminatory? They are going to be sued if they only recognize marriage as a union of a man and a woman,” Brownback said.
Tuesday’s debate, however, revealed a split among Republicans on the amendment.
John Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, noted that the amendment’s second sentence would seem to ban civil unions and domestic partnerships, and that he had received many calls from constituents who were confused as to whether this was the case. Unless the measure’s wording were changed, Warner said, he would not vote for it.
McCain said the marriage amendment imposed the federal government’s will upon an area traditionally left to the states and therefore violated the conservative values of Federalism.
“States are successfully working to pass amendments reserving marriage for opposite-sex couples,” McCain said. “I support this effort and it is working successfully.”
Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who is among the Senate’s tiny cadre of same-sex marriage supporters, mounted a strong attack against Allard’s amendment. Noting that the ambiguity in the amendment’s wording placed civil unions and domestic partnerships in jeopardy, he pointed out that even the amendment’s supporters could not agree how it would impact such arrangements.
“We should not play politics with the Constitution, nor should we play politics with the lives of gay and lesbian Americans who correctly see this constitutional amendment as an effort to make them permanent second-class citizens,” Feingold said. “They are our friends, our family members, our neighbors, our colleagues. They should not be used as pawns in a cynical political exercise.”
Senator Ted Kennedy followed in a similar vein.
“There are same-sex couples in every state, and nearly every county in the country,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “They have families, and children. Why should the federal government seek to make their lives more difficult by writing discrimination against them into the Constitution?”
Feingold and Kennedy were among the few opponents of the amendment who used any of their time to defend the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians and their families. Most other opponents criticized the measure as politically motivated or a distraction from more serious matters such as Iraq, the budget deficit, and rising healthcare costs.
Notable for their absence from the debate were New York’s two Democratic senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Shumer. Both made floor speeches against the measure when it was up for debate in 2004—though at the time each characterized the effort for an amendment as unsound, unnecessary, and a distraction, rather than as discriminatory.
In March of this year, Clinton, as chair of the Democratic Senate Steering and Outreach Committee, convened a gathering of her colleagues and LGBT activists to discuss the impending marriage amendment debate. In May, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn hosted a follow-up meeting of local gay and lesbian leaders, attended by Andrea Minkow—a Clinton representative from the Steering Committee who played a leading role that day—as well as by a representative from Schumer’s office. The purpose of the meeting was to address a “messaging” strategy for the amendment debate, and the Capitol Hill staffers were informed by everyone on hand that New York’s gay community expected the Democrats to be more proactive this year in speaking to the dignity of gay and lesbian American families.
“I have heard from many in the LGBT community about their disappointment that Senators Clinton and Schumer did not take the floor of the Senate to oppose the amendment and stand up for gay families,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. “But what’s most important is that they voted against this measure and defended us.”
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was less conciliatory.
“Very few Democrats are willing to talk about this as a human rights issue,” he said. “That the president would surround himself with the captains of the anti-gay industry in America—people who say the most vile things about gay people—and call for respect for all Americans is beyond hypocrisy. It is something he should have been called on.”
A press release from the Pride Agenda applauded five Democratic senators who did speak up for the gay community—Feingold, Kennedy, California’s Barbara Boxer, Illinois’ Dick Durbin, and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton. Given its mission as a New York gay rights group, ESPA’s decision to reach out of state to cite leadership on the amendment is noteworthy.
Asked to comment on the silence by Clinton and Schumer, Quinn said, “As I understand it, there was a limited time that both sides were given in the debate and when that time was divided up, Hillary and Chuck were not included.” As to whether she was disappointed that her advice on framing the issue did not make its way into a floor speech by a New Yorker, Quinn said, “I am not disappointed that neither of them spoke because as I understand the time was divided up on each side. What I am very happy about is both of our senators did a tremendous amount of work building support for our side. And, frankly, I am more interested in that than whether they spent time talking in front of C-Span.”
The amendment’s supporters predicted they would garner more votes this time than in 2004, mainly because four Democratic senators who voted against it two years ago had been replaced by conservative Republicans. However, this year’s tally gave them only one more vote than in 2004. Two Republicans, Specter and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, changed their votes from 2004 to vote against the amendment.
“The U.S. Senate gave a resounding defeat to the voices of intolerance who are trying to use the Constitution as a political tool,” said Log Cabin Republican president Patrick Guerriero in a statement. “Momentum is on our side as a growing conservative force stands up in defense of the core American values of equality, liberty, and federalism.”
Supporters vowed they would try again.
“I do not believe the sponsors are going to fall back and cry about it,” Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, told the Associated Press. “I think they are going to keep bringing it up.”
Samantha Smoot, the Human Rights Campaign’s political director, said the result would still be the same.
“Not a single senator buckled under pressure from these powerful conservative groups, but two bucked their party and president to cross sides,” she said. “It is a sign the American people are sick of this trend of attacking gay people when the polls are down.”
According to Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, the House will consider a similar amendment in July. In 2004 the House also took up the matter, but it was defeated there as well.