Sunday, November 14, 2004

GOP to press for gay-marriage ban

The Boston Globe
GOP to press for gay-marriage ban
Democrats facing reelection pressure

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff | November 14, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Emboldened by the 11-state sweep of bans on same-sex marriage Nov. 2, conservative leaders intend to fuel the debate further when they return with an expanded majority to the next Congress, and press vulnerable Democrats into an awkward corner over the divisive issue.

There is little chance a federal constitutional amendment will pass the House or Senate with the necessary two-thirds' majority, but advocates expect it to be reintroduced in both chambers, prompting a vote that would placate conservatives and could then be used against Democrats up for reelection in 2006.

With as many as 15 states poised to introduce their own same-sex marriage bans in the next two years, following a campaign that proved the political potency of the issue, Republicans see it as one of their most powerful issues heading into the 109th Congress.

Asked whether politicians should vote against same-sex marriage bans at their peril, senior White House adviser Karl Rove told reporters last week, "I think people would be well-advised to pay attention to what the American people are saying. This is an issue on which there is a broad consensus."

Gay-rights advocates strongly disagree and cite polling data that show many voters support civil unions and oppose a step as drastic as a constitutional amendment, preferring to leave decisions about marriage to the states.

But those who have been promoting same-sex marriage said they cannot help being chastened by the Nov. 2 votes, wary they may have pushed too far too fast. Many are concerned about the political reverberations for Democrats and moderate Republicans who have typically been on their side.

"We have to win in the legislatures and the voting booths; otherwise, this will be seen as a movement that is forcing itself on the American people," said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. On that score, and on winning popular support for its cause, he said, "I don't think we have done a great job."

At the state level, ban opponents are considering introducing their own ballot initiatives, stopping short of same-sex marriage but ensuring domestic-partner provisions, such as healthcare benefits and visitation rights.

At the federal level, where a constitutional ban failed in both houses of Congress last year, both sides are floating a number of proposals in the hope of working toward a national consensus on same-sex marriage. One proposal, backed by groups opposing same-sex marriage, would bar the federal courts from hearing cases that would extend gay marriage beyond states that allow it.

But the constitutional amendment, as unlikely as it is to pass, remains the ground on which conservatives hope to build political pressure on Democrats -- and to openly reward the conservative activists who believe they helped deliver the election to Bush by turning out their supporters.

In the Senate, at least five Democrats are expected to face close races in the next election, putting them in the crosshairs of Republican strategy every time there is a vote on same-sex marriage. One of them, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, represents a state that voted to ban same-sex marriage Nov. 2.

Stabenow voted with the majority last summer, when the Senate rejected the federal constitutional ban; 50 senators voted against it, 48 senators voted for it, and two did not vote.

Three of the other vulnerable Democrats facing reelection -- Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, and Bill Nelson of Florida -- won within a two-percentage-point margin in their last races and are in presidential battlegrounds. They, too, voted against the ban on same-sex marriage ban last July, making them appealing GOP targets. Another endangered Democratic incumbent, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted yes on the ban.

"Legislators in those states are . . . going to be hard-pressed not to be supportive," said Paul Weyrich, CEO of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. "If under those conditions legislators continue to vote against the amendment, I think there will be some political translation."

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, the leading opponent of same-sex marriage, warned that opponents can either switch their votes or continue to see same-sex marriage wielded against them in elections to come.

Sprigg said he expects to use same-sex marriage as a political wedge until it is blocked at the federal level. "An easy way for Democrats in Congress to take this issue off the table is simply to vote in favor of it," he said, referring to the constitutional ban.

Chances of a mass reversal in the Democratic ranks are slim to none, Democratic strategist David Axelrod said. "I don't think if we opposed a constitutional amendment before, we should support it now," Axelrod said. "That would be craven and stupid." But, he conceded, the 11-state sweep did signal a greater truth about the dilemma facing his party. "There is a more meaningful question about values that needs to be addressed."

But certain moderate Republicans who voted against the ban could be in trouble as well, especially Senators Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, both facing reelection in the next cycle. Both, according to advocates on both sides, are in danger of primary challenges from conservative Republicans.

The risk for conservatives is that Chafee and Snowe represent states that often lean to the Democrats. If either were defeated in the Republican primary, the winner would risk losing the seat to a candidate more liberal than Chafee or Snowe.

Opponents of the ban, as well as gay-rights advocates, said Republicans appear increasingly in danger of overreaching on the issue, putting their own majority in jeopardy if they appear too zealous to pass a measure that lacks even a 51-vote margin in the Senate, let alone the 67 votes required for a constitutional amendment.

Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, a leading voice on conservative cultural issues who is planning his next steps about same-sex marriage on Capitol Hill, is "wildly out of step with where his state is," said Christopher R. Barron, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans.

Pennsylvania backed Democrat John F. Kerry over President Bush.

If the Nov. 2 vote unsettled Democrats anywhere, it was in Michigan and Oregon, which supported Kerry and voted to ban same-sex marriage at the same time. Rove and other Bush strategists have cited those votes as evidence the ballot measures reflect a wider national sentiment against same-sex marriage, backed even by people who oppose Bush.

"In states like Arkansas and Ohio, where it was on the ballot, Bush won, and in states like Oregon and Michigan, where it was on the ballot, it won by significant margins, and we lost," Rove said. "I do think it was part and parcel of a broader fabric where this year moral values ranked higher than they have traditionally."

Many supporters believe that, as a civil rights issue, same-sex marriage is not like taxes or healthcare.

"It's like any other civil rights progress we've had in this country," said Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat. "Maybe it's unrealistic to expect things to change overnight, but . . . I think the president and Karl Rove and all those others who are demagoguing this issue are on the wrong side of history."