As expected, the U.S. Senate failed to pass the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment on Wednesday, and the country's gay rights groups said they were pleased with the support they got from a core group of moderate Republican lawmakers in their fight to stop it. The amendment needed 60 votes to stay alive, but it failed on a vote of 48 to 50. The vote provides an embarrassing defeat for President Bush and the leaders of his party in the Senate, including majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who were advocating for the measure. They and a number of antigay groups, including Focus on the Family, have spent the past year in a heated push for the amendment, which would define marriage in the U.S. constitution as a union between one man and one woman.
With questions about the war in Iraq, terrorism, and the economy looming large in this election year, many voters and lawmakers have seemed unconcerned about marriage rights for gay men and lesbians. Antigay groups and lawmakers have been hoping to turn the issue of same-sex marriage into the next "abortion issue." During debate on the proposal, Santorum pleaded with his fellow lawmakers that "the future of our country hangs in the balance because the future of marriage hangs in the balance. Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?" But this week he and other amendment supporters learned that if they would had had an up-or-down vote on the bill, as many as 60 senators were prepared to vote against it. So they turned to a procedural vote instead.
Gay men and lesbians, especially those living in Washington, D.C., let out a sigh of relief. "This was an attempt to divide Americans that backfired," said Cheryl Jacques, president of gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "This debate has always been about politics, and undermining the Constitution is their tool." Said Dave Noble, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats: "Even with the full weight of the presidency and the Republican leadership bearing upon them, the Senate soundly rejected George Bush's politics of division and distraction. Hopefully the Republican leadership in the House will see that attempts to distract Americans with divisive measures like this will be rejected by fair-minded Americans and give up their efforts to have a vote in the House later this year." Chris Barron, political director for Log Cabin Republicans, added, "Proponents of the FMA didn't have the courage to allow an up-or-down vote on their antigay proposal because they didn't want to face an overwhelming defeat."
So to which Republican senators should gay men and lesbians give credit for helping block the amendment? Start with Arizona's John McCain. In a moving floor speech on Tuesday night, he said, "The constitutional amendment we're debating today strikes me as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans." He added that the amendment "usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states do not believe confronts them." Democratic opponents said the debate was politically inspired, designed in part to distract attention from the war in Iraq and economic issues. "The issue is not ripe. It is not needed. It's a waste of our time. We should be dealing with other issues," said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticuit.
Whatever the amendment's future in Congress, there were signs its supporters intended to use it in campaigns already unfolding. "The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," South Dakota Republican senatorial candidate John Thune said in a radio commercial airing in his state. "They have done it in Massachusetts, and they can do it here," added Thune, who is challenging Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle for his seat. "Thune's ad suggests that some are using this amendment more to protect the Republican majority than to protect marriage," said Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Daschle's campaign.