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Democrats Critical of Marriage Amendment Debate

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Lawmakers here in Washington are holding two different debates over gay marriage. The first is over a Constitutional amendment to ban it. It would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, and the Senate is debating that now. The other debate is whether now is the right time to discuss it. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Why exactly would Republicans in the Senate propose a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage when they know it has virtually no chance of seeing the light of day?

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, South Dakota): We understand why this issue's before the United States Senate.

BURBANK: South Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan put forward a theory, shared by many in his party, during the early stages of yesterday's Senate debate.

Sen. DORGAN: It is about an election this fall. I'm not saying it's not an important issue, I'm saying that the notion of having to amend the basic framework of our government, that's a political debate aimed at this fall.

BURBANK: Many critics of the amendment say its timing is suspect. This is, of course, an election year, and gay marriage, or more precisely, banning gay marriage, has been a surefire way in the past for Republicans to show loyalty to their conservative base and get that base energized. Combine that with the fact that the amendment has almost no chance of actually being passed, and you've got the makings for some suspicious Democrats.

Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and supporter of the ban, says those suspicions are misplaced.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): You can say, well, okay, this is something that's just brought up by Congress. This is just being done in an election year because we're just concerned about elections. Well, I can certainly say for this Senator, that is not the case. I view this as foundational to this society, to the future of the republic.

BURBANK: After a good hour or so of debating over whether they really should have been debating the issue, they finally got down to actually debating the issue.

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy did not mince words.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): As a United States senator, I'm deeply concerned this proposal is writing discrimination into the Constitution. For the first time - for the first time in our nation's history, we'd be amending the Constitution to narrow individual rights and to federalize an issue of family law, for the first time.

BURBANK: Wayne Allard, the Colorado Republican who sponsored the bill, says it's necessary because without it, federal judges can, as they did in the case of a 2000 amendment to the Nebraska State Constitution, overturn a decision that might reflect the opinion of a majority of the state's residents.

Senator WAYNE ALLARD (Republican, Colorado): What we're trying to protect is the state legislatures from having their legislation and the people's legislation within their state overturned by an unelected branch of government, the federal courts.

BURBANK: In front of a crowd of supporters, President Bush yesterday, renewed his call for passage of the amendment. He said it would simply reflect the will of the people in many places.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, 45 of the 50 states have either a state Constitutional amendment or statute defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman. These amendments and laws express a broad consensus in our country for protecting the institution of marriage.

BURBANK: Critics of the proposed ban say those are actually 45 reasons not to amend the Constitution. They say, clearly, states have managed to work out their own mechanisms for deciding who should be able to get married. They also point to the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996, which makes same-sex unions a state-by-state matter. They think it should be left the way.

The amendment currently being considered is expected to fail when it comes up for a Senate vote this Wednesday, not, though, before each and every Senator who wants to has had their say on the matter.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: States are also debating gay marriage, and you can find out where your state stands by going to our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 6, 2006 at 12:39 PM MDT
In the broadcast version of this story, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) was incorrectly identified as a senator from South Dakota.
Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.