WASHINGTON – Unable to ban gay marriage (search), congressional Republicans are working to contain it, advancing legislation in the House to make sure federal courts don't order states to recognize same-sex unions (search) sanctioned outside their borders.
"When federal judges step out of line, Congress has the responsibility to drop the red flag," Rep. Lamar Smith (search), R-Texas, said Wednesday as the court-stripping measure cleared the House Judiciary Committee on a near party-line vote of 21-13.
Democrats objected, some strenuously. Rep. Maxine Waters of California called the legislation a political exercise, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, criticized it as "unnecessary, unconstitutional and unwise."
Even so, GOP officials said the measure likely would be on the House floor next week, and they expressed confidence it would pass.
If so, it would mark a clear victory for gay marriage opponents, who suffered a decisive setback Wednesday in the Senate when the constitutional amendment fell a dozen votes shy of the 60 needed to advance.
Within hours of the vote in which 48 senators voted to advance the measure and 50 to block it, President Bush issued a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed" by the outcome but calling it a temporary setback.
"Activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America and neither should defenders of traditional marriage flag in their efforts," he added.
"It is important for our country to continue the debate on this important issue, and I urge the House of Representatives to pass this amendment," the president said.
Bush wasn't the only one who seemed eager to extend an election-year debate over the issue.
"We know now which senators are for traditional marriage and which ones are not, and by November so will voters in every state," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "This fight has just begun."
Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which opposed the amendment, expressed little concern about political repercussions. "I think the discussion will continue to play out but I think they played their best hand today and couldn't even get a simple majority," she said of the Senate vote.
Bush's public prodding alone assures the issue will persist into the fall, and Republican strategists have said they hope the issue can be put to use against Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting.
Kerry, D-Mass., skipped the Senate vote. He issued a statement renewing his opposition to the amendment and accusing Republicans of seeking to alter the constitution for political gain.
"The unfortunate result is that the important work of the American people — funding our homeland security needs, creating new and better jobs, and raising the minimum wage — is not getting done," he said.
Bush urged Congress last winter to pass an amendment banning gay marriage, but prospects have never been good that supporters could amass the two-thirds majority in the House and Senate needed to send the measure to the states for ratification.
Most Democratic lawmakers oppose the proposal, and some conservative Republicans in both houses objected to stepping on terrain traditionally reserved for the states.
The legislation advancing in the House is designed to address the concerns raised by GOP dissidents, and solidify Republican support.
"This simply defers to the states," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Under the measure, federal courts would be stripped of jurisdiction over federal legislation that gives states the right to decide whether to recognize same sex marriages.
Republican officials also said it was possible they would stage other votes on gay marriage before the fall elections.
The possibilities include a measure to prevent the Washington, D.C., city government from recognizing gay marriages.
In addition, several officials said a constitutional amendment may be brought to the floor in the fall, closer to the election.