Hatch to Act on Marriage Measure

Posted February 24, 2004 at 6:40pm

On the day President Bush came out in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, top Senate Republicans said they will begin hearings on the issue next week and could force a vote on the measure in the next few months.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) indicated that the deadline for floor action would not extend for more than a few months.

Hatch said he will not allow opponents of the amendment to bury it in the Judiciary Committee indefinitely and vowed to use whatever procedural steps needed to make sure the measure gets to the Senate floor.

“Let’s face the music and see what happens,” said Hatch, who has come under heavy criticism from conservatives over his handling of allegations that Senate GOP aides improperly obtained and distributed confidential memos written by Democratic staffers on the Judiciary Committee.

Hatch prefers a different approach to the controversial topic of gay marriage than the amendment proposed by Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.).

The chairman would rather see an amendment adopted that gives individual states the right to refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriages approved by other states, despite Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution, which provides that “full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, is planning to convene his panel next Wednesday to review the topic of “judicial activism” — with a focus on how it applies to the gay marriage debate.

Cornyn wants to look at the national implications of the recent Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling striking down a ban on gay marriages in that state. “Judicial activism has made the defense of marriage a national issue that can only be addressed at the national level,” he said in a prepared statement.

“Defense of marriage is no longer an abstract issue, no longer an issue that can be addressed merely with campaign platitudes. The right of the people, not the courts, to decide what is best for families, must be addressed and defended.”

What direction the gay-marriage debate will take in the House still remains unclear.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a staunch conservative, signalled yesterday that he was in no hurry to take up this controversial topic.

“This is so important we’re not going to take a knee-jerk reaction to this,” DeLay said. “We’re going to look at our options and we are going to be deliberative about what solutions we may suggest.”

A number of House GOP leaders have privately expressed concerns over the wisdom of adopting a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage, despite their opposition to it.

These Republicans believe that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and granted states the right not to recognize another state’s approval of same-sex marriages — is still the law of the land, and that any litigation challenging the act should be completed before a constitutional amendment is enacted.

Bush, who did not endorse a specific amendment proposal, said Congress should “promptly pass and send to the states for ratification an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman, as husband and wife.”

Administration officials had leaked several weeks ago that Bush would back the gay-marriage amendment, although when he would do so was uncertain. The spectacle of thousands of same-sex weddings in San Francisco seems to have convinced Bush and his political advisers that the time for him to get involved was now.

“After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,” Bush said in a White House speech.

A number of prominent Democrats and pro-gay rights groups immediately slammed Bush’s declaration, but there is no firm count on whether there would be enough votes to defeat an amendment. Musgrave has more than 100 co-sponsors for her version of the measure, and while support for the amendment in the Senate has been limited so far, that number is sure to grow now following Bush’s call for action.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, is opposed to gay marriage but not in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban it. “I believe President Bush is wrong,” said Kerry, according to The Associated Press. “All Americans should be concerned when a president who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the Constitution of the United States at the start of his re-election campaign.” Kerry claimed Bush is “looking for a wedge issue to divide the American people.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose San Francisco district is home to a large gay population, also lashed out at the president. “I strongly oppose this amendment and will work to defeat it,” said Pelosi in a statement released by her office. “Never before has a Constitutional amendment been used to discriminate against a group of people, and we must not start now.”

Pelosi added: “This is a classic case of the president trying to distract from his failures. Whether the issue is Iraq, the economy and jobs or health care, the president and the Republicans are in disarray and in desperate need of a distraction. The American people deserve better.”