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Gay Marriage Debate

After a background report, Senators discuss the rejected bid to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, likely tabling the measure for the rest of this election year.

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  • MINISTER:

    … To be married spouses and partners for life.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    A political firestorm was ignited in November when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay couples in the state are entitled to marry. Conservatives mobilized, calling for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage. This week Republican leaders in the Senate delivered on a promise to bring such a constitutional amendment to the floor. Majority Leader Bill Frist.

  • SEN. BILL FRIST, Majority Leader:

    All of us stand in front of you believing marriage should remain a union between man and woman.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Colorado's Wayne Allard sponsored the amendment. It defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and could have barred courts from sanctioning civil unions between gay couples.

  • SEN. WAYNE ALLARD:

    It's very timely that we have this debate today here in the United States Senate, a debate that we try to define marriage, to limit the role of the federal court, and we allow states, through a democratic process, to proceed as they see fit towards providing benefits through civil unions or domestic partnerships.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Many Senate Democrats said they, too, oppose gay marriage, but they also opposed writing such a ban into the Constitution, which would require a two-thirds vote of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. California's Dianne Feinstein said Republicans were pushing the proposal merely to rally conservative voters ahead of the elections.

  • SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

    Why are we doing it? The only answer I can come up with is because this is political. It is to drive a division into the voters of America, into the people of America, one more wedge issue at a very difficult time to be used politically in elections.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    President Bush who endorsed a constitutional ban on same sex marriage earlier this year, did so again in his radio address Saturday. He blamed the Massachusetts Supreme Court for forcing the issue.

  • PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    When judges insist on imposing their arbitrary will on the people, the only alternative left to the people is an amendment to the Constitution, the only law a court cannot overturn.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But amendment opponents also picked up backing this week from Vice President Cheney's wife Lynn, whose daughter is gay. On CNN, Mrs. Cheney said states should determine the legal status of personal relationships.

  • LYNNE CHENEY:

    First of all, to be clear that people should be free to enter into the relationships that they choose, and secondly to recognize what's historically been the situation, that when it comes to conferring legal status on relationships, that is a matter left to the states.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Meanwhile, in the Senate this week, debate on the gay marriage ban was slow going, as supporters of the amendment differed over its language. Virginia's John Warner.

  • SEN. JOHN WARNER:

    I don't think it speaks to the clarity that the public are entitled to and wants, and this could lead to a great deal of confusion among the American public, and I don't want to create that confusion.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    And early this afternoon, the attempt by most Republicans to advance a gay marriage ban ended. The effort failed even to get close to the 60 votes needed to hold a final vote on the measure.

  • PRESIDING SENATOR:

    On this vote, the yeas are 48. The nays are 50. The motion is not agreed to.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Gwen Ifill takes it from there.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Joining us now from Capitol Hill are Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a co-sponsor of the gay marriage amendment, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, one of its key opponents.

    Sen. Boxer, as we saw today, the vote fell so far short of it even winning approval to start debate that it begs the question, what was this all really about?

  • SEN. BARBARA BOXER:

    Well, you'll have to ask my colleague why they insisted on pushing this to the Senate. It didn't even get out of the Judiciary Committee because they didn't even probably have the votes there, and the fact is I think it was hard, cold, crass politics. It was timed to be before the Democratic National Convention. I don't think you need a degree in political science to see that.

    And I think given the fact that there are so many important issues before us– we've just been warned, warned very clearly by Tom Ridge, the head of homeland security, that this country is really at risk right now from an attack by al- Qaida. Given that, they go to this gay marriage issue. It just makes no sense to the American people, I don't think, and I don't really understand why we went through this. They never had the votes in the first place.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let me turn that question then to Sen. Santorum. You're a pretty fair vote counter. You must have known going into this that you probably didn't have the votes to allow debate, so what was this about?

  • SEN. RICK SANTORUM:

    Well, as you know, Gwen, this issue is not something that we created or brought to the American public. This is something that a group of litigants brought to the state courts, in Massachusetts, have now brought to 11 other state courts and two federal courts to try to change the definition of marriage and were successful in Massachusetts, and that law actually just went into effect about two months ago. After the law went into effect and said they were not going to stay that decision, we then decided to schedule a vote on bringing this issue to the fore.

    Look, all the great issues, the great decisions that we have to make as a country, very, very rarely do they ever pass on the first time out. We bring them up. We start the debate. We get the public involved. And that's really what this constitutional amendment is all about. It's allowing the public to have a voice on what marriage should be in our country, not unelected judges in the states around the country.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sen. Boxer, I feel like countless time I've covered debates on Capitol Hill where the Democrats have argued, just bring this to a vote. No matter what, we should be bringing this to a vote so we can at least have that debate. Yet today the Democrats, most of them, were leaning against that.

  • SEN. BARBARA BOXER:

    Well, you have to know the back story there. We very much wanted to bring this to a vote, and we made an offer to Bill Frist, who heads this place right now, and said we're very happy to have an agreement to have a vote. We wanted to just deal with the amendment that was before us, but he said, "I'd like to do it, but I'm getting trouble from my caucus," and he came back and said, "gee, we can't really do that. We want to have it wide open."

    And suddenly we would have the Senate be kind of like a constitutional convention. You'd have this amendment and that amendment, everything thrown in, and we would be debating these constitutional amendments for the rest of the session. There's only 27 days left. And this Republican Senate doesn't even have a budget. They haven't done anything about port security, about rail security and, you know, all of this talk about an assault on marriage, you know when the last time was that we raised the minimum wage? Eight long years ago. We have things to do to help our married couples. We have things to do to help our children.

    I wrote the after-school bill with Republican John Enson. It's been flat-lined for three years. Millions of children are waiting to get into after-school. And that puts pressure on marriage. So that was the story. We made our offer; they turned it down. And I think it was very evident when six Republicans joined with us that this was not the issue we should be going to at this time.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sen. Santorum, I want you to respond to that, but also answer the question: Not too long ago the Senate passed the defense of marriage… actually, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, I believe is the correct name. Why would this… why would this, what you are asking, the constitutional amendment, be needed to go beyond that?

  • SEN. RICK SANTORUM:

    Well, two things. Number one, with respect to why we wanted to have more than just a vote on one particular language, the fact is that this is a constitutional amendment process that the Senate should participate in. Sen. Boxer and her colleagues repeatedly come and say, "oh, don't limit our right to offer amendments. Don't let the Senate work its will." And yet on this issue, the Senate Democrats said, "you get one vote. That's it. You can't have amendments. You can't have different alternatives." And the idea that there would be a constitutional convention frankly just is not accurate.

    If Sen. Boxer wanted to offer a constitutional amendment to any bill that came through here, she could. There's always an opportunity to offer constitutional amendments. The bottom line is we don't because we try to accomplish very specific things. In this case, marriage is threatened. It's clear that the courts are moving in that direction, and the people of America have a right to be able to voice their opinion on what marriage should be in this country. With respect to the Defense of Marriage Statute, which Congress did pass and was signed by President Clinton, two court cases right now are pending in which the Defense of Marriage Act is threatened to be held unconstitutional. The Supreme Court case in Lawrence V. Texas last year was very clear. The majority opinion was very clear. It signaled clearly the Defense of Marriage Act was not going to stand.

    Every left, right and middle constitutional lawyer in this country have all said as a result of the Lawrence decision, the Defense of Marriage Act will not stand. We could wait until it happens and some suggest that we need to do that. I suggest that the constitutional amendment process takes a long time, and to protect states, we have to give them the right to voice their concern, and you do that by proposing. That's what Congress does, propose a constitutional amendment, and 38 states have to ratify it. Every state legislature, all the people of the several states will be involved in this discussion, and they will determine what marriage will be in this country, not unelected judges.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask you — I'm going to play devil's advocate with both of you for a moment. With you Sen. Santorum, I'm curious about how you would respond to what Vice President Cheney has said in the past and what his wife Lynne Cheney has said this week, which is that this is not a federal issue, one that should be left to the states.

  • SEN. RICK SANTORUM:

    I disagreed with them then and I disagree with them now. I would just say that this is an issue that we can not allow and that's even with the Defense of Marriage, even if it was held constitutional. What we would have is a patchwork of different definitions of marriage. And what we're seeing is that that really can't stand. It's sort of like what happened with abortion in the 1960s. States began to change abortion laws, and the federal government, the United States Supreme Court came in and said, "Look, we can't have this disparity of rights between individuals within states, and so we're going to have to come in and impose a national solution."

    And, the court did it instead of the people of America doing it. That's what would happen in the case of changing the definition of traditional marriage. There would be a patchwork. We're seeing in fact one of the cases where the Defense of Marriage statute is being challenged is in Washington State. And, oddly enough, it's with a Canadian lesbian couple who were married in Ottawa who are now in a bankruptcy case in Washington State, and the one big issue is whether they have to respect marriage and disposition of these assets.

    So this is — it really is an issue that cannot be contained within state borders. Eventually the federal court… the United States Supreme Court will come in and rule, and it's clear they will rule for changing the definition of marriage. And at that point, you know, the horse is out of the barn, and the decision has been made. And as just what happened with Roe versus Wade, it's virtually impossible to put it back in.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And Sen. Boxer, for you, what would you say to people who say that what the Democrats in the Senate were trying to do was spare their presidential candidates — the vice president presidential nominees, John Edwards and John Kerry, the tough decision of having to put their names on the record voting against a bill which public opinion polls show people favor?

  • SEN. BARBARA BOXER:

    Well, actually, I have to say that the position of John Edwards and John Kerry is right in concert with the people of America. They support domestic partnerships and civil unions so, and six Republicans joined us. I don't think their first concern is for the Democratic ticket. But you know, my colleague here is expounding on what the court will do. He's so sure. He was wrong on abortion. He said to the people, the American people, "oh, we're going to support this abortion bill and we're going to be upheld." He's never won that once. The fact of the matter is, this is a great country of great traditions. And all these threats against marriage– now I don't know how my colleague feels about it. And I've been married for 42 years. I can tell you, I know a lot of people with long-term marriages. They are not threatened when two people who happen to be the same gender move down the street and care about each other and visit each other in the hospital. This does not threaten their marriages. And I think if someone is threatened, if their marriage is threatened by this, they have deeper issues they have to deal with. I'd love to see my colleague get as excited about helping children, helping families, getting our kids in after school, getting our kids in preschool, making sure children have health care and all the other things that frankly he and I are on the other side of.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sen. Santorum, Sen. Lott, one of your colleagues, Trent Lott, said today or yesterday, I guess it was today, "I hope those that vote against it pay a price, and I'm going to do a part in that." Do Republicans plan to ask President Bush to keep this issue front and center in the national campaign?

  • SEN. RICK SANTORUM:

    I don't think President Bush will have to do anything to keep this issue in the national stage. I think the American people will. I don't know of any issue we've been involved in here in Washington, D.C., in the last couple decades where we've gotten more petitions, e-mails, phone calls, and overwhelming numbers in favor of doing something to protect traditional marriage. This issue is just beginning to percolate out across the grassroots of America. It's not, as the Washington Post indicated, just about rural voters, those hayseeds out there in the rural areas who are the only ones who care about traditional marriage. It is about average, ordinary Americans, Democrats and Republicans. This is not an issue that splits Republicans. This is an issue that splits Democrats. Democrats by majority support traditional marriage, support making sure that children have the opportunity to have moms and dads and the ideal situation for them to be raised and nurtured so they can be productive members of our society.

    This is not going to be an issue that George Bush is going to have to run out and talk about. This is an issue the American public is going to demand accountability from members of the Congress and their president.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I gave Sen. Boxer the first word. I'll give you the last. Thank you both very much.

  • SEN. BARBARA BOXER:

    Thank you.

  • SEN. RICK SANTORUM:

    Thank you.

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