Washington The House on Tuesday rejected a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, ending for another year a congressional debate that supporters of the ban hope will still reverberate in this fall's election.
The 236-187 vote for the proposal to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman was 47 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment. It followed six weeks after the Senate also decisively defeated the amendment, a top priority of social conservatives. The amendment needed the yes votes of two-thirds of those voting.
Supporters said, nevertheless, that Tuesday's vote will make a difference when people got to the polls in November.
"The overwhelming majority of the American people support traditional marriage," said Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., sponsor of the amendment. "And the people have a right to know whether their elected representatives agree with them."
Opponents dismissed the proposal as both discriminatory and legislatively irrelevant because of the Senate vote. The measure is "all for the purpose of pandering to a narrow political base." said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, an openly gay Democrat from Wisconsin. "This hateful and unnecessary amendment is unworthy of our great Constitution."
The marriage amendment is part of the "American values agenda" the House is taking up this week that includes a pledge protection bill and a vote on President Bush's expected veto of a bill promoting embryonic stem cell research. Bush has asked, and social conservatives demanded, that the gay marriage ban be considered in the run-up to the election.
The White House, in a statement Tuesday, urged passage of the measure. "When activist judges insist on redefining the fundamental institution of marriage for their states or potentially for the entire country, the only alternative left to make the people's voice heard is an amendment of the Constitution."
The same-sex marriage debate mirrors that of the 2004 election year, when both the House and Senate fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to send a constitutional amendment to the states. But the issue, in the form of state referendums, helped bring conservative voters to the polls.
One result has been that, while Congress stayed on the sidelines, state legislatures moved aggressively to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Forty-five states have either state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage or state statutes outlawing same-sex weddings. Even in Massachusetts, the only state that allows gay marriage, the state's high court recently ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban future gay marriages can be placed on the ballot.
"Our momentum in the states is extremely strong and Washington is playing catch-up," said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage.
Daniels, who was involved in drafting the amendment's language, said it was essential that Congress eventually set a national standard. Members of Congress are "the only hope for seeing marriage protected in this country and they should be on record."
But Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, said the amendment would prevent states such as his own, where thousands of same-sex couples have married over the past 2 1/2 years, from making decisions on what constitutes marriage.
"I do not understand what motivates you," Frank said Monday, addressing Republicans on the Rules Committee. "I don't tell you who to love."
The proposed amendment says that "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither the 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."
One conservative group, the Traditional Values Coalition, said it was a "good thing for traditional marriage" that the measure was unlikely to pass because it wasn't clear enough in ruling out civil unions between gays.
"We have just won several important court decisions in the past few weeks," said the coalition's executive director, Andrea Lafferty, but the amendment's proponents "are still playing 'Let's make a deal' with the liberals and the homosexual lobby."
The Senate took up the measure last month but fell 11 short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation to a final vote. The last House vote on the issue, just a month before the 2004 election, was 227-186 in favor of the amendment, 49 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment.
The U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times, including the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights. In addition to two-thirds congressional approval, a proposed amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
The amendment is HJ Res 88.