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.
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.
The amendment consists of two sentences: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
Speaking to a bipartisan group of amendment supporters at the White House on Monday afternoon, Bush repeatedly castigated what he called "activist judges" for thwarting the will of the people on same-sex marriage. "Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges," Bush said.
But not all religious conservatives are happy with the amendment's wording. One opponent, the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, says the amendment amounts to a "hollow gesture" when it comes to protecting marriage and argues that the second sentence, in particular, would in fact allow civil unions and other forms of "counterfeit marriage" in the states.
"Saturday the president said in his [weekly radio] message that this Marriage Protection Amendment does fully protect marriage. It doesn't," says Mr. Sheldon. "So why would you want to break your back and spend millions of dollars in 38 states passing it, even if it did pass the Congress, if it gives the states the right to do the thing that has totally brought all this to a head, civil unions and domestic partners?"
Sheldon represents a minority view among social conservatives, however, and for now, Bush and supporters of the current language are pressing ahead. But even if the measure dies for now in the Senate, the issue will remain alive at the state level. At least six states will have measures on the ballot this year, most of them banning gay marriage, and activists in other states are working on fulfilling requirements for similar measures. In New York, the state's highest court is considering an appeal that could end up legalizing gay marriage there.
Unlike public opinion on other hot-button social issues, such as abortion, Americans' views of gay marriage have been evolving. In March 1996, 27 percent of Americans believed homosexual marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, according to the Gallup Poll. Today that number is 39 percent.
Most recent amendment: 1992, the 27th, limiting congressional pay raises.
Last two serious attempts:
• The Equal Rights Amendment, proposed in 1972. It read in part: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It cleared both chambers of Congress and at one time was ratified by 35 states - short of what was needed.
• The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, proposed in 1978. It would have granted Washington, D.C., the full voting rights in Congress of a state. It expired unratified in 1985.