Senate Vote on Amendment

Democratic filibuster likely to trump GOP unity next week

The Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) will come up for debate and a vote—sort of—during the week of July 12.

Both Republicans and Democrats are maneuvering so they will be able to spin the procedures and the resulting vote to their advantage. It is not clear that either party has the best interests of the gay community at the center of those maneuvers.

Based on interviews with a wide variety of sources on Capitol Hill and among lobbyists there, it looks likely that Republicans will offer up the FMA and open debate on July 13. Democrats are expected to denounce the measure as a distraction from more pressing business that the Senate should be addressing and will offer pet legislation staunchly opposed by the Republicans—such as an increase in the minimum wage—as amendments. Those adds-on will be voted up or down.

The following day there is likely to be a vote on cloture—the procedure to cut off debate, prevent consideration of further amendments, and vote for real on the FMA. Surviving a cloture vote requires 60 ayes. The cloture vote is expected to divide primarily along party lines, and may win support from some Republicans who otherwise oppose the FMA. Since Republicans have such a slim margin of control in the Senate, it will almost definitely fail. And the FMA will then likely disappear from the Senate for the remainder of this session of Congress.

These gymnastics will allow the Republican leadership to preserve a semblance of unity when in fact they likely would lose a number of their members who oppose tinkering with the Constitution. Social conservatives will spin it as a vote against traditional marriage by Democrats.

Democrats locked in tough reelection campaigns will be able to tell the gay community that they defended its honor, even while telling other folks back home they support the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman, just not the idea of amending the Constitution over the issue.

In this scenario, the gay community will at least gain a respite from having to deal with the FMA for the time being, and groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) will undoubtedly laud their allies in the Democratic Party for a procedural vote that allowed them to avoid being put on the spot over the tough question of amending the Constitution.

But what will be is lost is the opportunity to demonstrate just how far short of a two-thirds majority the FMA really is. Some head counts have suggested, as New York Sen. Charles Schumer told Gay City News two weeks ago, that a true vote on the proposal might even fall short of 50 votes. That kind of repudiation would put a stake through the heart of the beast.

In discussing this scenario with reporters from the gay press on July 6, Cheryl Jacques, HRC’s executive director, said, “We are casting this, as are our enemies, that this is absolutely a vote on the FMA, this is not a procedural vote, this is a substantive vote.”

Christopher Labonte, HRC’s legislative director, added, “Obviously the Democrats don’t want this to come up to a vote and will filibuster” on the FMA. Deputy Political Director Barbara Menard explained, “The Democrats feel that the Congress should be focused on other issues. [The cloture vote for Republicans] is as much about cutting off debate and forcing a vote as it is about cutting off non-germane amendments.”

Sen. John Kerry has missed a large portion of Senate votes as he has campaigned for the presidency, as did his vice presidential choice John Edwards when his presidential bid was still alive. When asked whether Kerry will be present to vote on this measure, Jacques strongly asserted, “He will be there.”

“It isn’t just about narrowly defeating this measure, it’s about winning soundly, sending a clear message to the House and to the states [considering state constitutional amendments] that discrimination is wrong.”

Jacques’ hopes that the November election results will be viewed as a repudiation of the sort of wedge politics that the FMA represents—with pundits concluding, “Pres. Bush and other leaders played the gay card as aggressively as they could and it failed. It blew up in their face.”

“It is unconscionable even to have a vote on such a homophobic piece of legislation, it shouldn’t even come up on the floor of the Senate,” said Michael Bauer, a gay Democratic consultant and fundraiser based in Chicago. “I’d rather see the thing filibustered” than voted on.

“Tom Daschle has told me that he will lead the Democratic caucus in turning this down,” Bauer said, challenging rumors that the Senate minority leader, locked in a tight reelection campaign, might actually vote for the FMA, giving other Democrats a pass to do likewise.

Other gay leaders in recent months have likewise said they’ve received strong assurances that Daschle will hang tough on opposing the measure.

While the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week ducked a proposal sponsored by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, San Francicso Mayor Gavin Newsom, and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to come out against the FMA, the man who is perhaps the most popular Republican in the nation, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said, “I don’t care one way or the other,” when it comes to gay people getting married.”

Meanwhile, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention have endorsed the FMA, while 26 other religious denominations have gone on record as opposing it. Social conservatives allied with James Dobson and Focus on the Family are organizing “Marriage Protection Sunday” on July 11to stir up lobbying pressure from the pulpit in favor of the amendment.

Those efforts to date, including an expensive satellite hook-up to rally churchgoers and print advertising in states with key Senate races, have generated surprisingly little response from the grassroots. The political newspaper The Hill quoted Daschle spokesperson Dan Pfeiffer as saying, “We’ve heard from almost no one” on this issue.

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