Timing of Senate Vote Unclear

Jacques lessens the urgency; Corzine minimizes gay marriage electoral influence

This week, as hundreds of gay and lesbian newlyweds celebrated their weddings in Massachusetts, opponents of same-sex marriage efforts have increased their lobbying on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment proposal that would prohibit same-sex marriages. In the House of Representatives, lawmakers have greeted the amendment with less than enthusiastic support, with Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the judiciary committee chairman, conducting hearings, but giving outspoken opponents of the amendment, including Democratic colleagues such as New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, as much time to testify as proponents of the amendment.

In the Senate, however, Republicans such as Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, staunch social conservatives and supporters of the Bush administration, have taken up the amendment proposal with a fervor unmatched by any lawmaker in the House, nor, in fact, by the White House itself.

Pres. Bush issued a statement on Monday, the same day same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts, in which he renewed his call for Congress to pass the amendment and “protect the sanctity of traditional marriage,” but otherwise remained silent on the topic.

Currently, there are 51 Republicans in the Senate, with 48 Democrats and one independent, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who bolted from the GOP after Bush took office.

With a clear recognition that in the six months before the presidential election the Senate is more inclined than the House to schedule a vote on the amendment, same-sex marriage proponents have begun to focus on a core group of senators who remain uncommitted on the measure, some of whom face competitive re-election contests in November, when one-third of Senate seats are up for election.

In a press tele-conference on May 4, Cheryl Jacques, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington, D.C.-based LGBT lobby, stated that the amendment could come to the floor of the Senate as early as this summer. “We see this as a very real threat,” said Jacques who added later on that “the reality is very present” that opponents of the amendment would lose that Senate vote.

Jacques’ announcement came as a surprise in that press reports were stating that the amendment’s passage was facing an uphill battle in both houses of Congress.

On May 18, in another press tele-conference, Jacques indicated that in a Republican-led Senate it is only a matter of time before the amendment has a vote. Jacques referred to the amendment as a “looming threat,” around which the politics “continue to be fluid.” “Its enactment would be the most devastating moment in LGBT history,” said Jacques in her opening remarks. However, in response to a question asking her to clarify how imminently she expected a Senate vote, “This threat is on the horizon,” replied Jacques.

Clearly, conservative Senate Republicans would relish the opportunity to force John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, to vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment just before the Democratic National Convention in July. However, Kerry has already come out against the amendment, so Bush/Cheney campaign operatives are essentially deprived of any shock value from the senator’s vote.

Moreover, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, is not guaranteed to get a party line vote on the amendment, with moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chafee and Susan Collins likely to vote against it.

On May 19, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign said that the group’s “intelligence in the Senate is that a vote is scheduled for July by Senators Frist and Santorum.”

While they have a majority, albeit slim, Republican leaders may be inclined to schedule a vote, especially in light of Pres. Bush’s falling poll numbers and what one Democratic senator, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, referred to as the president’s “ball and chain rather than coattails” for Republican senatorial candidates. Corzine spoke during a May 19 press tele-conference. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Corzine raises money for candidates and travels around the country to generate support for a Democratic takeover of the Senate. As of March, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had raised approximately $2.5 million, a figure dwarfed by its Republican counterpart’s total which was nearly $13 million.

Nevertheless, Corzine predicted that if senate elections were held today, Democrats would win a majority. “Six to eight weeks ago, it was a jump ball,” said Corzine, “but trends are moving in our direction.” As for the November elections, “I’d be happy with 51-49 and I actually think it’s 52-48,” the senator said, apparently including Jeffords, who typically votes with Democrats, with the majority. Corzine indicated that because of the continuing enemy insurgency in Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal and faltering job growth, Democratic candidates in key swing states like Ohio, Kentucky, Alaska and Colorado, where Republicans now hold senate seats up for grabs, have significant chances of winning.

When queried as to how the issue of same-sex marriage might affect those races, Corzine said that Americans “were more concerned with the 785 men and women who have lost their lives in Iraq more than about this issue.” Corzine added that the economy, America’s prestige abroad and taxes pre-empted same-sex marriage as a forefront issue for most American voters. In response to another question from a National Journal reporter about the impact of same-sex marriages on Senate races in the South, Corzine responded, “Goodness gracious,” then stated that the “undermining of America’s reputation in the prisoner scandal, and Americans will die because of it, takes precedence,” adding that “Americans are smarter than politicians give them credit for.”

In an interview on May 19, Mike Mings, HRC’s political action committee director, said that his group is targeting specific Senate races, including those in Nevada, Missouri and Wisconsin, where groups and individuals, who oppose amending the Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage, but are not typically allied with LGBT communities, are being identified and encouraged to vote for the Democratic incumbent. In South Dakota, the Senate’s minority leader, Tom Daschle, is facing a stiff challenge from former Republican Rep. John Thune. In several other races for open seats, including Colorado, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, Mings indicated that HRC does query potential candidates on their stance on same-sex marriage and the Federal Marriage Amendment before endorsing them or donating money to their candidacy.

Officially a nonpartisan group, HRC typically endorses Democrats, but also supports Republican candidates and contributes money to groups that finance moderate Republican office seekers.

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