WASHINGTON – The House rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on Tuesday, a setback that conservatives hope to turn to their advantage in the fall elections.
"Be assured that this issue is not over," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
The vote was 236-187 with one member voting "present," a slight improvement over the last House vote just before the 2004 election but still 47 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment.
Supporters argued that Congress must trump the actions of judges around the country who have ruled in favor of gay marriages. "We must not allow an institution of such great importance to be arbitrarily redefined for the entire nation by a small number of unelected judges," said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa.
Opponents, including 27 Republicans, argued that the measure was meaningless — the Senate rejected the amendment last month, effectively killing it for this session of Congress — as well as unneeded and mean-spirited.
"This is a partisan effort by Republicans to divide the American people rather than forge consensus to solve our urgent problems," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Democrats argued that the House's focus on the GOP's "American values agenda," which includes votes this week on a pledge protection bill and a vote on President Bush's expected veto of an embryonic stem cell bill, was a distraction at a time the nation faced serious domestic and international problems.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of just a few openly gay members of Congress, said he took the proposal personally. "I think this is motivated, frankly, by a dislike of those of us who are gay and lesbian," he said, and he objected to "people taking batting practice with my life."
The defeat in the House followed a series of victories at the state level where courts, legislatures and voters have come out for gay marriage bans.
Forty-five states have either constitutional amendments banning gay marriage or statutes outlawing same-sex weddings. Even in Massachusetts, the only state that allows gay marriage, the state's high court recently ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban future gay marriages can be placed on the ballot.
Bush has advocated, and the Republican Party's conservative base has demanded, that the ban be extended to the federal level. "The administration believes that the future of marriage in America should be decided through the democratic constitutional amendment process, rather than by the court orders of a few," the White House said in a statement.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the leader of House conservatives, argued that the vote was a "successful failure."
"We poured a little more concrete in the footings of a building that will be built," Pence said.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading supporter of the amendment, said his group will put out a voter scorecard that will go to millions of Americans before this November's election. "This will be a very prominent issue," he said.
"The overwhelming majority of the American people support traditional marriage," said Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., sponsor of the amendment. "And the people have a right to know whether their elected representatives agree with them."
The proposed amendment says that "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither the Constitution, nor the constitution of any state, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
The House vote in 2004 was 227-186 in favor of the amendment, 49 short of the needed majority.
"They have now failed twice in their shameful election-year ploys, using gay and lesbian families as punching bags," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group. "We didn't see any traction" in Tuesday's vote, he said.
The Constitution has been amended only 27 times, including the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights. In addition to two-thirds congressional approval, a proposed amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.