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GOP targets gay marriage

The Senate has begun debate on a constitutional amendment banning it.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2006


Gay marriage is back in the political spotlight, as the Senate begins debate on a constitutional amendment banning it and President Bush speaks out on behalf of the measure.

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But from the outset, the outcome is nearly certain: There are probably not enough votes in the Senate to build the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment, members of both parties agree. And so, as debate began Monday, analysts were hard put to see any other motive than political for putting the issue forward now.

"It's connected to the fall elections and the situation in the Republican Party," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "There's no way around that."

With Mr. Bush struggling to win back support of fellow Republicans who have grown discouraged, the president has been under increasing pressure to advocate forcefully on an issue that religious conservatives consider of utmost importance, especially with state court cases under way that could lead to legalization of same-sex marriage. Congress faces even larger political stakes: low public approval ratings, and, unlike Bush, danger of low voter turnout this fall in the midterm elections among social conservatives that could hurt Republicans seeking to maintain their majority.

At the same time, the GOP's efforts at creating a "big tent" image will be put to the test. Some of the most vulnerable members of Congress - many of them moderate Republicans from the Northeast - could be hurt by the debate, as it highlights a point of view less resonant in that part of the country than in others.

The debate could also reverberate further into the future, into the 2008 presidential contest. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a likely GOP contender, opposes a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, arguing that the issue should be left up to the states. He has long faced hostility from social conservative leaders over this and other positions, and his recent efforts at reconciliation with this activist wing of the party could be set back by the debate.

Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of the current term, also may run for president, and so his advocacy for the Marriage Protection Amendment is also seen through the lens of his own possible ambitions. Senator Frist has also scheduled a vote this week on a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, another measure seen as highly political.

For Bush, after a flurry of action this week on gay marriage, the question could be, what next? If the amendment fails in the Senate, as presumed, he will face continuing pressure to push for this and other measures important to religious conservatives. During his presidency, his pattern usually has been to hold positions consistent with those of religious conservatives, but not to advocate for them as fiercely as religious leaders would like. On constitutional amendments, the president plays no formal role - his signature is not required - so any power he may wield would come through the bully pulpit.