New England's 12 senators span the political spectrum, from Massachusetts's liberal lions to the more conservative thinkers in New Hampshire, but they are finding a common ground on one of the political season's most contentious issues: same-sex marriage. At least four of the region's five Republicans will join the six Democrats and one independent this week in voting against the proposed federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Only one, Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, was still undecided, and calls to his office Monday were not returned. Bonding the New England legislators is their sense that, while most don't approve of gay marriage, the issue does not belong in the U.S. Constitution and should be decided by the states, not the federal government.
While it is not uncommon for the diverse group of Northeasterners to combine forces on regional issues like fishing or highway funding, they often part company on social matters like abortion or gun control.
The Republicans from Maine and Rhode Island are moderates who are known to break ranks with their party. But throw in Sununu and his Granite State Republican counterpart, Sen. Judd Gregg, and the ideological expanse widens a bit. Except on same-sex marriage. ''Marriage should be between a man and a woman,'' said Gregg, a senator who received a 100% rating from the Christian Coalition last year and a 14% rating from the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay advocacy group. But, he adds, ''a federal constitutional amendment is premature at this time, as federal law already gives authority to the states in recognizing marriage.''
Massachusetts's two senators, liberal Democrats Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, received marks that were practically the inverse of those given to their New Hampshire counterparts: a zero from the Christian Coalition and 100% from the HRC. But they largely agree with Gregg on the amendment banning gay marriage. It violates state sovereignty, said Kennedy, adding that Congress ''has better things to do than write bigotry and prejudice into the Constitution.'' Overall, their views mesh with those of their constituents. In a Pew Research Center poll, 57% of Northeasterners said they opposed the constitutional amendment, compared to 53% nationwide and 47% in the South. ''New Hampshire has a history of saying, let people do what they want to, and they don't like the federal government telling states what to do,'' said Andy Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. ''Live free or die. We'll decide for ourselves.'' A survey of state residents, he said, showed that 55% support legalizing same-sex marriage and 64% oppose an amendment banning it.
Maine's two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Connecticut Democratic senator Joe Lieberman, and Democratic senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island oppose same-sex marriage but agree it is a state issue. ''States currently possess the authority to decide whether or not to recognize an out-of-state marriage,'' said Collins, adding that she supports the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress several years ago. As long as that law is on the books, she said, there is no need to amend the Constitution. The Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and says that same-sex unions recognized by one state do not have to be recognized by others. Connecticut senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat, supports civil unions and said marriage should continue to be regulated by the states.
Probably the most fervent Republican on the issue is Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who slammed the proposed amendment as ''nuts.'' In Vermont, where the law allows for civil unions, the two senators are, not surprisingly, on the same page. Sen. Patrick Leahy has led the opposition to the amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is the ranking Democrat. And Sen. Jim Jeffords, an independent, said it is ''really sad that the Republican leadership would bow to religious conservatives and use the Senate floor as a warm-up for the political conventions.''