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Congress debates constitutional amendment

Congress debates constitutional amendment

The U.S. Senate held a contentious hearing Wednesday on whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to restrict marriage to the union of one man and one woman as well as to prohibit all federal recognition of same-sex relationships permanently. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who presided over the hearing, argued that defending "society's bedrock institution" should be "a bipartisan issue," The Washington Post reports. But Democrats were having none of it. "This is a divisive political exercise in an election year, plain and simple," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. In a sign that the constitutional amendment endorsed by President Bush may be running into trouble on Capitol Hill, the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), is preparing to introduce wording that would leave the definition of marriage up to the states. Congressional aides told the Post that Hatch, while vowing to support the version of the amendment favored by Bush, has drafted language to appeal to conservatives concerned that Bush's version would intrude on states' responsibilities. Bush last week announced his support for an amendment banning gay marriage, as spelled out in the version introduced by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) and Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo), which would define marriage as the union of man and woman and could prohibit the extension of federal benefits and rights to all same-sex couples. Hatch's proposal would allow each state legislature to define marriage as it chooses and to decide whether to recognize the standards of marriage allowed in other states. Hatch hinted at his plans during Wednesday's hearing, according to the Post. "The Musgrave-Allard text, which I support and will vote for, should be seriously considered," he said in a written statement. "I think it would also be prudent if we look at approaches which keep the courts from forcing its definition of marriage on states and instead let the legislatures and the citizens decide for themselves what is best for them." Lawmakers have been frustrated that Bush unveiled his marriage proposal with little consultation on Capitol Hill. As a result, the White House has encountered unexpected opposition from some Republicans in addition to expected opposition from Democrats. "A number of us think Senator Hatch's approach is the most promising on strategic, legal, and political grounds," said Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "He is focusing on a target that is capable of generating broad, across-the-board support." Few on Capitol Hill give any form of an amendment much chance of getting the necessary two-thirds support in both chambers this year; the main question is whether the House and Senate will hold a vote on an amendment so that lawmakers are forced to take election-year stands. Some conservatives indicated they could warm to Hatch's proposal if it is the only vehicle with a chance of passage. Opinion polls indicate that majorities oppose gay marriage even in states such as California and Massachusetts, so Hatch's amendment could have the same effect as Bush's. Gary Bauer, a prominent religious conservative, said he is skeptical of Hatch's approach but added, "Any proposal will be looked at if it helps us accomplish the goal." In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican leaders of the House Judiciary Committee said they plan to hold similar hearings in the near future to consider the amendment. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, denounced the proposed amendment. "The Constitution should not be used as a political tool by George W. Bush, and as the ranking Democrat on the Constitution Subcommittee, I will fight tooth and nail to protect the Constitution," he said. "I firmly believe that many of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle will stand with me to preserve our nation's most sacred document.... The truth is that the president's egregious attempt to enshrine discrimination in our Constitution is no more than a search for a wedge issue in the 2004 campaign to distract the American public from the fact that the president and the Republican Congress have failed to address the historic loss of 3 million jobs, the largest deficit in American history, and inequities in public education and health care."

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