The first vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, expected in the Senate Wednesday, may not move the issue forward in the US Congress, but could have a significant political impact, with the potential to shift prospects in key races across the nation this fall.
It is extraordinarily difficult to amend the Constitution, and analysts believe it is already clear that the effort coming to the Senate floor this week does not have enough momentum to pass. But it does allow conservatives to take a stand on principle against legal efforts in a number of states to adopt same-sex marriage.
It taps into a deeply emotional issue - President Bush in his Saturday radio address called it a debate over the redefinition of "the most fundamental institution of civilization." As such, the political impact is hard to calculate, but Republicans see it cutting their way.
GOP activists claim the issue could mobilize the 4 million Christian conservatives who did not vote in 2000. If so, it boosts Republican prospects in at least 10 Senate races, including a South Dakota contest that could topple Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. The issue could enhance prospects for a GOP sweep of five seats in the South.
Democrats aren't conceding the battle. In recent days, presidential candidate John Kerry has been stressing that the issue of "values" runs deeper than just a few social issues, and that the proposed amendment writes discrimination into the Constitution. Mr. John Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, say they would vote against the amendment. Kerry says he supports gay civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.
As of this weekend, as many as 20 senators on both sides of the aisle have still not signaled their views on this bill - a sign of how deeply divisive the issue is on its own merits and how potentially toxic in the voting booth.
"I remember the days when the Republican Party said we are going to keep the federal government out of the doings of the states. Well, now we seem to not only politicize judicial nominations, making independent judges a wing of the party, but now we're going to politicize the Constitution itself. I think it's wrong," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont as debate opened Friday.
But it's a tough call for Democrats facing close races in Bush country. "It's part of the values debate that's very deliberate, an effort to make it really clear that the Democrats don't represent the mainstream values of Mainstreet USA," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz.
But he says that it's not clear how effective the Democratic claim that Republicans are intolerant will be. "A majority of Americans believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but an equal majority don't want to see any discrimination of any kind. It's not clear how that will play out," he adds.
One impact of a high-profile vote on gay marriage could be to keep voters in the GOP column on cultural issues who might otherwise be inclined to shift on the economy or the war. Pollster John Zogby calls it a defensive, rather than an offensive strategy.
President Clinton endorsed and signed the Defense of Marriage act in 1996, which cleared the Senate with 85 votes. But he signed the legislation at 12:50 a.m with no witnesses - a sign of how divisive the issue was, even then.
Republicans say that the courts are in the process of making that law moot, and federal action is critical to bolster it. Wednesday's vote is a procedural one, but Republicans hope to make it a proxy for the real vote.