WASHINGTON—After the Senate fell far short Wednesday of the votes needed to outlaw gay marriage by amending the Constitution, Republicans immediately changed the subject to estate taxes—item two in a three-pronged June strategy to rally restive conservative voters.
In a 49-48 test vote, the Senate blocked a proposed constitutional amendment to declare marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. Despite a last-minute push by President Bush, the amendment failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural objections, let alone the 67 needed to begin the process of altering the Constitution.
Though doomed from the start, the amendment was part of a Republican plan to spend the month of June on conservative causes to rally the party's base as November congressional elections draw near.
Next, after trying to repeal the estate tax permanently, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., intends to bring up a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag desecration by month's end. Gay marriage and flag burning agitate social conservatives and are scheduled periodically for votes in Congress in election years.
Advocates of the gay-marriage ban had a net gain of one vote over a similar amendment in 2004, but they failed to win the majority they'd hoped for. Voting for it were 47 Republicans and two Democrats. Opposed were 40 Democrats, seven Republicans—including all five from New England—and one independent. Three senators didn't vote: two Democrats and a Republican.
Despite the loss, Republican leaders intend to bring the amendment to a vote in the House of Representatives next month.
Two Republicans who had voted with gay-marriage opponents in 2004—Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire—voted against the amendment Wednesday.
Gregg explained that two years ago he feared that judicial decisions permitting gay marriage, such as one by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2003, "would cause legal chaos across the country."
"Fortunately," he said, "such legal pandemonium has not ensued. ... A constitutional amendment to take this issue not only away from a few activist judges but also out of the hands of 50 states' legislators, governors and electorates is not warranted at this time."
Specter has consistently stated his opposition to the amendment, though he joined amendment supporters in a move to bring the matter to a vote in 2004, when he was fending off a conservative challenger in his re-election primary.
His fellow Pennsylvania Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum, said "religious liberty ... is under incredible assault as a result of these court decisions on the issue of marriage." He said he hoped the debate "has given some light to that issue."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., had summed up the moral view of the amendment's opponents this way Tuesday: "The Republican leadership is asking us to spend time writing bigotry into the Constitution."
The Senate vote came a day after voters made Alabama the 20th state to insert a gay- marriage prohibition into a state constitution. Overall, 45 states prohibit same-sex marriage either through legislation or by constitutional amendment. Opponents of gay marriage said a federal constitutional amendment was necessary to prevent federal courts from overturning such state initiatives.
By Wednesday afternoon, Majority Leader Frist had shifted the Senate's attention to the estate tax. The flag amendment could come up in the next two weeks, before Congress' weeklong July Fourth recess.
The Senate voted on a "Defense of Marriage Act" in 1996, a presidential election year. It voted on a flag amendment in 2000, the year Bush first won the presidency.
The move to end the estate tax, currently 46 percent for estates valued at $2 million or more, is also unlikely to get the 60 votes it needs to proceed to final passage. Senators were working on compromises that stopped short of outright repeal.
At issue is a 2001 tax-cutting law that put the estate tax on a path toward repeal effective Jan. 1, 2010. But all those tax reductions are scheduled to lapse at the end of 2010, meaning the estate tax would return to its pre-2001 levels.
Some senators have tried to find a middle ground. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., would set the estate tax rate at 15 percent for estates in excess of $5 million. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has proposed a graduated tax rate for estates of $3.5 million or more.
The flag amendment could come close to getting the 67 votes it needs to begin the ratification process. In 2000, 63 senators voted for it. Supporters include Frist and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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