Brandishing a copy of the Constitution on the Senate floor, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) accused Republicans on July 13 of "taking a roller to a Rembrandt" in their efforts to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment.
The "Rembrandt," as it turned out, was perfectly safe. Instead, it was the GOP leadership that got rolled, losing a key procedural vote and failing even to bring the amendment to the floor for a straight up-or-down vote.
The 48-50 roll-call vote on July 14 effectively kills the marriage amendment for the remainder of this year, though the broader issue of gay unions is certain to live on. Family groups vow the vote will play a role in November elections -- but experts predicted the controversy could cut both ways.
Despite days of passionate rhetoric on both sides, the vote turned out to be less than the watershed event Republicans had hoped for. John Kerry and John Edwards reportedly had cleared their campaign schedules to fly back to Washington for a historic vote on amending the Constitution. Though both men have publicly said they oppose the homosexual-marriage ban, an actual vote would have provided a cleaner target for Republican ads.
In the end, however, the campaign went on because the constitutional amendment was going nowhere. To forestall voting on the amendment itself, Democrats attempted to talk the issue to death. Closing debate and forcing the amendment to the Senate floor required 60 votes, a threshold the Republicans were never close to reaching. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards announced they wouldn't return to Washington for a mere procedural vote, and Democrats from conservative-leaning states breathed a sigh of relief that the parliamentary maneuvering had spared them a potentially embarrassing vote.
Indeed, most of the embarrassment was on the Republican side of the aisle. Six GOP senators broke ranks to oppose the measure, largely out of an expressed concern that the wording would infringe excessively on states' rights. In addition to defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the amendment went on to say that neither federal nor state constitutions "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."
Critics said that would prevent states from regulating a host of issues ranging from inheritance to hospital visitation -- something even many conservatives found hard to swallow. A second amendment offered by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) might have attracted up to 10 additional votes by deleting the offending language, but Democratic leader Tom Daschle refused to allow consideration, saying he didn't want to turn the Senate into a "constitutional convention."
Republicans pushed the issue to the top of the agenda, at least in part, to force Democrats to make their positions public. In addition to the tight presidential race, strategists figured a vote in favor of gay marriage might make a difference in a handful of Senate races -- Arkansas, Nevada, and the Dakotas, for instance -- where Democratic incumbents this November will face voters with a conservative streak.
In South Dakota, Republican challenger John Thune, a former member of the House, is already making an issue of Mr. Daschle's opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment. "The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," says a Thune radio ad now on the airwaves across the state. "They have done it in Massachusetts and they can do it here."
It remains to be seen how other Republican Senate hopefuls make use of the issue. The complexity of the procedural vote muddies the waters somewhat, and Democrats in some of the most conservative states -- South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Louisiana -- embraced the amendment outright.
The political maneuvering may also have some unintended consequences. GOP Sen. Arlen Specter, for instance, found himself in something of a
no-win situation as he contemplated which way to cast his vote. After narrowly defeating a primary challenge from the right, Mr. Specter is eager to show conservative voters that he deserves another six years in office. At the same time, however, a vote in favor of the amendment might risk a backlash from moderate suburban voters in November.
After a bit of soul-searching -- and, perhaps, some poll-searching -- Mr. Specter voted in favor.