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GOP Goes Slow On Gay Marriage

Despite support from President Bush and the Republican leadership, there appears to be no rush in Congress to take up a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and some GOP insiders predict such a vote might not occur this year.

“We need to be very thoughtful in allowing the necessary time for this to move forward,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “I don’t think we need to be in any rush.”

Even though Bush has indicated that he backs the amendment, the White House has not yet made a concerted effort to work out a coordinated legislative strategy with the Republican leadership.

“They’re kind of leaving the ball in our court right now,” a senior House GOP leadership aide said of the White House’s involvement so far.

Given the potential divisiveness of the issue and the almost certain floor fight that would ensue over the exact such language an amendment would contain, Congressional Republicans stressed that it will be essential for the Bush administration to play an active role in the process.

“My own view is that the president’s leadership is important on this issue,” said Blunt.

While there is widespread sentiment within the House GOP Conference opposing gay marriage, putting together sufficient support for a constitutional amendment, like the one introduced by freshman Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), would be a complicated and arduous task.

Musgrave’s proposal is designed to prevent gay marriages but not block state legislatures from allowing same-sex civil unions, although some groups opposed to it contend the measure would not even allow that type of formal partnership.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, is putting together a hearing for late February or early March on the matter.

Chabot’s hearing is in response to a Feb. 4 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which found that homosexuals have the right to marry or enter into civil unions in that state. The ruling provoked outrage among Republican leaders and conservative groups, which are now seeking Congressional action to ban such marriages.

Like Blunt, Chabot took a cautious approach to the issue, stating that “it is important that the Congress and the Constitution subcommittee review the recent ruling” in Massachusetts — and sort out how it affects the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — before coming to any decision on whether to move forward on a constitutional amendment.

That act 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.

Chabot, who voted for DOMA but has not taken a position on the Musgrave amendment, called it “complete speculation” on when a vote on that proposal would occur, if it in fact does.

Guy Short, Musgrave’s chief of staff, said that his boss has discussed the issue with both the White House and the Republican leadership but has not yet received any firm commitment for hearings or an eventual floor vote. Musgrave’s proposal has 112 co-sponsors at the latest count, and is seeking more.

“We hope for a vote this year,” Short said, though he acknowledged that “a constitutional amendment is a very large task” to complete.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who backs the Musgrave amendment if it is determined to be necessary in order to ban gay marriages, “has no timetable” for a vote, according to his spokesman. He wants all the conservative groups lobbying for such an amendment to agree on the language before any amendment is brought to the floor.

But several Republican lawmakers and aides also argue that DOMA is still in force. These Republicans said any challenges to the that legislation in the wake of the Massachusetts decision should be litigated before a constitutional amendment comes to the floor of the House or Senate.

Over in the Senate, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) has introduced an amendment nearly identical to the Musgrave proposal.

Allard said he was “excited” about a report in The Washington Post that the president now supports and amendment. “With the action going on Massachusetts, I think the sooner we get to this issue the better,” he said.

Allard said he has been talking with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) about bringing the amendment up but has received no promises yet about the timing of Senate floor action.

“I’m hopeful we can have a vote on it this year and get it passed,” Allard said. “We haven’t had any promises but we’re talking to the leadership.”

Allard’s measure has only six co-sponsors — Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) — but the Senator said he has just begun to ask other lawmakers to sign on.

“We’re just basically in the process of getting this thing started,” Allard said.

Democrats, for their part, seem to believe that Bush and the GOP leadership in Congress are just playing to their strengths, pumping up their base as they head into the fall elections.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who backed DOMA, accused Republicans of using the issue as a campaign-year ploy to divide the American public and distract them from focusing on problems in Iraq and with the U.S. economy.

“This has not been an issue that the federal government has dealt with,” Hoyer told reporters Wednesday. “I voted for some constitutional amendments which are basically dealing with fiscal policy, but I think this matter can be left to the states responsibly to handle and should be.”

Several openly gay lawmakers are also banding together to fight the amendment.

Reps. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who along with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), are the only openly gay Members of Congress, today will sponsor a Hill briefing on the divisive issue.

The forum will feature speakers from left-leaning groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and an organization called Freedom To Marry.

“Canada? Massachusetts? Amending the Constitution? Learn more about the debate over marriage rights for same-sex couples and ways to frame the issue,” Baldwin and Kolbe wrote in a joint “Dear Colleague” letter dispatched Wednesday.

Evan Wolfson, executive director for Freedom to Marry, said he believes having Kolbe, Frank and Baldwin working to defeat the measure “will add an important perspective to the debate in Congress over Musgrave’s bill.”

“Given this, it’s the really the first time it has been seriously proposed to amend the Constitution to discriminate against a group of Americans at least there are Members of Congress who can stand up and identify themselves as targets of efforts to make them second class constitutional citizens,” Wolfson said. “Their voice will be very important.”

Amy Keller, Ben Pershing and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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