Senate Republicans hold hearings on the value of "traditional marriage"

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April 26 2004 11:00 PM ET

Senate Republicans this week will launch a series of hearings to promote the value of "traditional marriage," a move some Democrats and political pundits are calling an election-year ploy that capitalizes on the same-sex marriage debate. According to a GOP memo obtained by the Associated Press, the hearings will represent a "full-court push to educate the public on the importance of marriage." Four committees are expected to hold hearings over the next two weeks, beginning on Wednesday with a Health subcommittee's discussion on "Healthy Marriage: What Is It and Why Should We Promote It?" "All of this could be very good for America to reacquaint itself with the importance of marriage as an institution for our culture and the danger we face as we move away from them," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, who will preside over the first hearing.

Democrats say the publicity blitz smacks of politics and dismiss it as an effort to garner votes among the nation's largest constituency--heterosexual married couples. "This is the kind of silliness the public finds appalling," said Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman, who teaches media, politics, and law at
Tufts University. "Talk about being totally and completely out of step. People don't need Republicans to tell them what a healthy marriage is." Bruce Cain, professor of political science at the University of
California, Berkeley, called Republicans' motives "transparent." "The Republican Party believes that since the majority of Americans favor heterosexual marriage, not gay marriage, and since it's an issue the Democratic Party has a somewhat more complicated position on, anything they can do to keep
the issue on the front burner of politics is a plus," said Cain.

Republicans concede the political dynamic surrounding the same-sex marriage debate in California, Massachusetts, and Oregon is part of the reason for the hearings. But they stress that these sessions aren't designed to examine whether gay marriages should be recognized. "We have to understand the significance of marriage to society before we go about the process of what happens if we change it," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, who will chair a May 5 Finance subcommittee discussion on "The Benefits of Healthy Marriage." Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said if the debate is limited to that topic, it could actually help make the case that same-sex marriages could be beneficial for society. "I believe that through these hearings, one will see there may be certain threats to marriage--divorce being one of them," Stachelberg said. "But one of those things is not gay and lesbian couples seeking to be married."

The third hearing, scheduled for May 13 in a Commerce subcommittee, will consider "What Social Science Can Tell Us About Marriage, Divorce, and Children." Another hearing, likely in the Judiciary Committee, hasn't yet been scheduled. Although the hearings won't focus on any specific legislation, one of the other reasons for them is to help nudge a welfare bill that is hung up in the Senate awaiting reauthorization. The bill includes the Healthy Marriage Initiative, proposed two years ago by President Bush as a way to offer cohabiting low-income couples incentives to marry.

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