WASHINGTON – With Republicans facing a potential backlash at the polls in November, a renewed national debate over gay marriage can only boost the morale of the party's religious conservative base, which for a variety of reasons is near mutiny, say sources in the movement.
"It could be an issue that may not necessarily bring them back, but it will bring them out, which is the key thing for the fall elections," said Bill Greene, head of RightMarch.com, an Atlanta-based conservative activist organization.
He described the Republicans' conservative base as "pretty ticked off" over the way GOP senators have handled illegal immigration reform, the budget and President Bush's judicial nominations, many of whom are still stalled in the Senate. But Greene said a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage "may be one prong of a multifaceted attempt at re-energizing the base."
On May 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Federal Marriage Amendment. And the Associated Press reported Thursday that Bush will lend support to the amendment in an announcement Monday.
The bill is scheduled for a vote before the full Senate on Wednesday, and then for House action in July.
If passed by a two-thirds vote in the House and in the Senate and ratified by at least 38 state legislatures, the amendment would define marriage as between a man and a woman and would supercede all state laws.
“We should take action and have the debate now about the fundamental nature of marriage, because we cannot afford to sit by idly as the institution of marriage is redefined and eroded by activist judges overstepping their purview. It’s time that the voice of the American people is heard, and amending the Constitution to protect traditional marriage will do just that by putting the issues before the states,” Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a supporter of the amendment, told FOXNews.com.
It is not clear yet whether backers of the federal amendment have the votes to get it passed by Congress.
And it is also unclear how hard the Senate GOP leaders or the White House will even push for the amendment at crunch time, said amendment supporter Rick Scarborough, head of the Texas-based Christian activist organization Vision America.
"A lot of the grassroots will be looking for signals from the White House, and right now they're not getting it," said Scarborough.
And conservatives balked at an appearance by first lady Laura Bush on the May 14 edition of FOX News Sunday, where she told host Chris Wallace the marriage amendment debate should not be "used as a campaign tool." On the same program, Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary, who is a lesbian, told Wallace the amendment would be "writing discrimination into the Constitution."
Asked how President Bush, who in 2004 said he supported a federal marriage amendment, felt about the bill as it now makes its way through Congress, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters last week that Bush's feelings haven't changed, but suggested his priorities might have.
"He supports it; I don’t know whether you want to get into priorities," said Snow. "Why don't we see how the debate proceeds. Sometimes you take a look at the votes. Sometimes you've got the votes; sometimes it's a dicey issue and you have to make a calculation on how hard you have to push."
Scarborough said that is not what conservatives want to hear.
"Somebody needs to get our president a wake-up call because it's going to be a disaster in the fall," he predicted.
But other conservatives say the GOP and the White House, which is suffering from its lowest approval ratings ever, risk being seen as pandering to the base by pushing the amendment too hard. Plus, says conservative activist Richard Viguerie, one issue does not a mended fence make.
"Everybody recognizes [Republicans] are desperate … and they are trying to figure out how to get out of this mess," said Viguerie, adding, "things have gone so sour, so bad" that one vote for a federal marriage amendment is not going to cut it.
While one vote may not catapult GOP ratings across America, political observers like Viguerie note that strategists may be looking for the issue to boost election turnout among the base in states where gay marriage is on the ballot or is the subject of contentious state court battles.
"Having a higher intensity to vote and higher loyalty in the party are the two things that tend to drive elections in a non-presidential year," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
"Would [a marriage amendment] help? Maybe. Would it hurt? No," said Goeas.
Currently, nine states face lawsuits challenging defense of marriage laws or a push for same-sex marriage rights. In Washington state, for example, a successful ruling in favor of same-sex marriage is being challenged in the state supreme court. In Georgia, a state judge just struck down a state constitutional amendment — passed by voters in 2004 — banning gay marriage. Lawmakers vow to put it back on the ballot in November if it is not upheld on appeal before then.
In addition, voters in seven other states this year will consider constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. According to the Heritage Foundation, 44 states have either constitutional amendments or statutory laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
"I do see it affecting turnout," particularly in South Carolina, one of the states with a marriage amendment on the ballot, said Eliot Peace, a Republican strategist in South Carolina. To boost the morale of the sagging conservative base, "You're going to need much more than just throwing a bone."
To be sure, while the issue may set a fire under anti-gay marriage voters in November, the debate will also mobilize a phalanx of gay rights organizations, left-leaning religious groups and Democrats, in general, who say they will fight the amendments on every level, say analysts.
According to the most recent Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans are opposed to granting legal marriage rights to same-sex couples. However, only 50 percent say they favor a federal amendment enshrining this position.
Matt Daniels, head of the Alliance for Marriage, a non-partisan group responsible for helping to bring the current federal amendment before Congress, said the marriage issue should transcend politics because it affects everyone regardless of party affiliation. He said he doesn't want the White House pushing the amendment only to appease its political base.
"The White House does not function, nor should it function like a conservative interest group," he said. "This is more important than either party. I think most Americans see it that way."