WASHINGTON -- Without suspense but with passion on both sides, the Senate yesterday killed an election-year proposal backed by the White House that would have changed the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.
Opponents of the ban hailed the vote as a victory for tolerance, states' rights and constitutional purity. Proponents vowed to tell constituents that those lawmakers who voted against the ban are willing to destroy traditional marriage. They pledged to make it an issue in the Nov. 2 elections.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., an opponent, noted that the Senate had spent almost a week on the debate, and said sarcastically, "What is more of a threat -- al-Qaida or gay marriage?"
A prime sponsor of the proposal, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate, denied that the proposal paled in significance to the as-yet-unapproved national budget or the war in Iraq.
"This is a great and extraordinary occasion," he said. "I would argue that the future of America hangs in the balance, because the future of the family hangs in the balance. Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?"
Earlier in the debate, Santorum declared: "You can say I'm a hater. But I would argue I'm a lover. I'm a lover of traditional families and of the right of children to have a mother and father."
The vote was on a procedural motion to end debate and go directly to a vote on the amendment, with 48 voting to end the discussion and advance the measure and 50 opposed. Sixty votes were needed to advance. The majority of Democrats opposed an up-or-down vote on the merits.
The Democrats' presumptive presidential-race contenders, Sens. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C., did not return from the campaign trial to Washington for the vote. Both men have said they define marriage as a union between a man and woman, but that they oppose changing the Constitution to ban gay marriage. They say it's an issue for each state to decide.
Santorum and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is in a tight race for re-election, both voted to end debate, as did Ohio Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich. And West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd was one of three Democrats -- the others were Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- who joined with most Republicans.
But six Republicans voted with the Democrats: Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snow of Maine and John Sununu of New Hampshire. Sen. John Jeffords, a Vermont independent, also voted to kill the issue. West Virginia's other senator, Jay Rockefeller, did too.
In recent days, the president -- in an effort to shore up his conservative base, which is concerned about the ongoing war in Iraq -- has been on the campaign trail himself promoting the need for federal ban on same-sex marriage.
"Activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America and neither should defenders of traditional marriage flag in their efforts," he said yesterday. Bush urged the House to pass the amendment.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, originally supported the states' right to decide the issue, but now endorses a federal ban. His wife, Lynne, herself a noted conservative author and commentator, has publicly disagreed with him, as many Democrats pointed out this week.
Sixty-seven votes are required to pass a constitutional amendment, far more than advocates of a federal ban on same-sex marriage have garnered so far.
Over several days of ferocious debate, most senators said they defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and some of them were eloquent about their own marriages. But many said a federal ban wasn't necessary.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said that if it happens that gay marriage becomes widespread, there will be time to revisit the issue. But Santorum scoffed, saying by then it would be too late, and that lawmakers wouldn't want to nullify a widespread practice.
Ron Schlittler of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays said his group was delighted that the ban was scuttled by a decisive 12 votes. "It was very important that it be more than just defeat," he said. "You don't mess with the Constitution. You don't mess with states' rights. You don't do stuff that enters the private sphere. There are a lot of reasons why good, solid conservatives opposed this."
James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, a conservative group based in Colorado, said he didn't consider the Senate vote a defeat because passing a constitutional amendment takes a long time. "We will be back," he vowed, adding that his group intends to make senators' votes yesterday an issue for the fall campaign.
Ann McFeatters can be reached at email@example.com or at 202-662-7071.