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U.S. Senate continues debate on gay marriage ban

U.S. Senate continues debate on gay marriage ban

Gay rights groups in Washington, D.C., will wage a full-scale battle on Monday and Tuesday as the U.S. Senate continues its debate on the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment, which proposes to amend the Constitution to ban marriage for same-sex couples forever. A vote on the measure, which reads "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman," could take place as early as Wednesday. The FMA has been a hot topic for months, especially since the February ruling by the Massachusetts supreme judicial court that allowed same-sex unions in that state. It is being pushed by conservative Republicans, including Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Colorado senator Wayne Allard, who introduced the Senate version of the proposal. Both argue that they are trying to "preserve traditional marriage." In the middle of the debate are a number of moderate Republicans, including Arizona's John McCain, who don't support marriage for gays but will not support the amendment because they feel same-sex marriage is an issue that should be decided by state legislatures. Finally, there are Democrats who see the FMA as nothing but election-year politics and gay baiting, and who are working hard for its defeat. Such senators include Massachusetts's Ted Kennedy, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, and New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton. Few political observers expect the amendment to pass. Conservative Republicans have nowhere near the 67 votes needed, nor the 60 votes for cloture, the Senate term for cutting off debate and taking an immediate vote. "The situation is very fluid right now, but I can tell you that we're cautiously optimistic that we have enough votes to defeat the cloture motion or defeat an up-or-down vote," said Steven Fisher, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. "For us, what's important is the margin of victory. The wider the margin of victory, the stronger the message that using GLBT Americans as a tool for discrimination is a mistake and won't work." For lawmakers who want George W. Bush reelected, actually passing the constitutional amendment is not the point. By bringing it up for debate they hope to fire up the Christian conservative voter base. They also hope to get Democrats to go on the record as being against a constitutional marriage ban. And they especially hope to embarrass John Kerry and John Edwards, who both told The Washington Post on Sunday that they would go to the Capitol for a final vote on the amendment. "Let's be very firm about it," Kerry told the newspaper. "Both John and I believe firmly and absolutely that marriage is between a man and a woman. But we also believe that you don't play with the Constitution of the United States for political purposes and amend the Bill of Rights when you don't need to, when states are adequately addressing this issue." In addition, Republicans hope to score points in key Senate races across the country, most notably that of South Dakota's Tom Daschle, who is in a tough reelection contest. Among straight hill staffers to the gay men and lesbians who were out at Dupont Circle's bars and restaurants this past weekend, the proposed amendment has stirred up emotions. Many who spoke to said they were outraged the measure had gotten so far in Congress. Meanwhile, there were mixed reactions to the full-page ad that ran in a local gay newspaper on Friday, in which some gay activists are threatening to out staffers working for congresspeople who support the amendment. In his weekly radio address, President Bush added fuel to the fire by calling on the Senate to pass the amendment. "If courts create their own arbitrary definition of marriage as a mere legal contract and cut marriage off from its cultural, religious, and natural roots, then the meaning of marriage is lost and the institution is weakened," Bush said. Adding confusion to the mix was Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife and mother of a lesbian. She said on Sunday that states should have the final say over the legal status of personal relationships. "I think that the constitutional amendment discussion will give us an opportunity to look for ways to discuss ways in which we can keep the authority of the states intact," Cheney told CNN's Late Edition. "First of all, to be clear that people should be free to enter into their relationships that they choose. And secondly, to recognize what's historically been the situation, that when it comes to conferring legal status on relationships, that is a matter left to the states," she said. What can gay men and lesbians expect out of Washington this week? There is going to be a flood of antigay rhetoric about the need to preserve the institution of marriage. Conservative lawmakers are going to carefully craft their talking points so that they do not specifically mention gay men and lesbians. Instead, they will use terms such as "values" and "culture wars." Gay rights groups, such as the HRC, the Log Cabin Republicans, and the National Stonewall Democrats are going to be monitoring the developments very closely. The next 48 hours represent the culmination of months of lobbying lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to oppose the FMA. For example, the HRC has a marriage war room set up at its headquarters and will be making multiple visits to the Hill and giving interviews to media outlets from C-SPAN to Fox News. "This is it. This is everything we've been working for the past year, and we're ready," Fisher said. However, even after this week the battle will not be over. Gay rights groups still expect the U.S. House of Representatives to vote on its version of the Federal Marriage Amendment this year, no matter what happens in the Senate. Advocate news features editor Chad Graham is in Washington, D.C., this week covering the Senate debate and vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment.

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