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20 Targeted in Marriage Battle

More than 20 Senators will face an intense lobbying effort over the next few weeks from opponents and supporters of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, a controversial measure expected to have an impact on the November elections.

In recent weeks, each camp has been huddling to devise strategies for influencing the mid-July vote. The amendment is widely projected to fail, but the tally is expected to provide an accurate assessment of sentiment on the issue.

Organizers said that over the next three weeks, the two sides will focus primarily on energizing their bases, rather than engaging in high-priced media blitzes to exert pressure on uncommitted Senators.

“The big advertising — we are beyond that right now,” said Tom McClusky, director of government affairs for the Family Research Council, which supports a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

The gay and lesbian GOP advocacy group Log Cabin Republicans has been running a $1 million targeted advertising campaign urging the constitutional amendment’s defeat, but leaders are rethinking the group’s strategy as the Senate nears the July 12 vote.

“Mobilizing grassroots might be more effective during this period,” said Christopher Barron, the organization’s political director.

The Family Research Council and other allies are relying on coalitions to energize grassroots members based primarily in the religious community.

Even before the July vote was announced, this grassroots network had already been activated when “The Battle for Marriage,” a live satellite broadcast, was beamed in May into 1,700 churches, organizers said.

A similar broadcast on July 11 — one day before the Senate turns it attention to the matter — will feature Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Opponents of the constitutional amendment are also banding together, temporarily shelving political differences to oppose the measure.

The Log Cabin Republicans have joined forces with the Human Rights Campaign, a liberal gay and lesbian lobbying group, even though the two organizations differ on what political party should control Congress and the White House.

“It is a critical time for people opposed to the amendment to realize we have to work with people who agree with us on opposing the amendment,” said Barron, the Log Cabin Republicans’ political director.

Groups lining up against the measure include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way and the NAACP.

Even though there is little chance that the Senate will end up voting on the merits of the bill, the July procedural vote is viewed as a critical harbinger about what direction this issue will head after the November elections.

“I haven’t seen a vote … that is more important than this,” said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign. “The fact that our opponents are those who would support discrimination, I think, is very disturbing.”

“This is the beginning,” said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, which supports enactment of a constitutional amendment. “The important thing is to start getting folks on the the record.”

Republican leaders have echoed a similar theme in recent weeks, saying it is important for voters to know where lawmakers stand on this issue before they head to the polls. Such statements have drawn sharp denunciations from Democratic lawmakers who charge that the GOP is only raising this issue for political purposes.

“I continue to believe that a constitutional amendment on marriage is unnecessary and aimed simply at scoring points in an election year,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said Wednesday at a Judiciary Committee hearing examining the issue.

While no official whip count has been taken by either political party, outside groups have identified at least one-fifth of the Senate as being uncommitted on this issue.

“I think both sides of this issue have the same targeted group of 20 to 25 Senators,” said Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition, which supports the constitutional amendment.

The groups are targeting Senators from both parties, hoping to use the November elections to coerce Senators — especially those seeking re-election — to support the constitutional amendment. The Family Research Council has even reworked the legislative report card it drafts each year so that it scores not only the vote but also actual co-sponsorship of the amendment.

“Sponsorship shows leadership on the issue,” McClusky said.

Among the lawmakers considered persuadable are Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D) and Mark Pryor (D); Indiana Sens. Evan Bayh (D) and Dick Lugar (R); Louisiana Sens. John Breaux (D) and Mary Landrieu (D); Maine Sens. Susan Collins (R) and Olympia Snowe (R); Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D); Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D); New Hampshire Sens. Judd Gregg (R) and John Sununu (R); North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad (D) and Byron Dorgan (D); Ohio Sens. Mike DeWine (R) and George Voinovich (R); Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R); South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings (D); and South Dakota Sens. Tom Daschle (D) and Tim Johnson (D).

Across the Capitol, the House GOP leadership has shown little enthusiasm for voting on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, despite a concern among some Republican Members about allowing marriages between gay and lesbian couples to continue unabated.

The House Judiciary Committee today is holding the fourth in a series of hearings on the issue. The hearing will focus on a proposal by Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) to “strip” the authority from lower and appellate federal courts to rule on questions of the legality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and return it to the state courts. This would allow those states that ban gay marriages to retain their prohibitions on the practice.

Hostettler and other supporters of the bill (H.R. 3313) argue that Article III of the Constitution gives Congress the right to deem such issues beyond the scope of federal courts other than the Supreme Court. According to one GOP source close to the issue, this approach has “big advantages” in that “it is not a constitutional amendment,” yet allows Congress to have a direct say in the direction of the debate over gay marriages.

GOP sources point out that a similar tactic was used in 2002 by Daschle. The Minority Leader placed language in a bill preventing federal courts from having the authority to review a timber management program in the Black Hills National Forest.

The hearing on the Hostettler bill will take place in the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to have one more hearing on gay marriage before the end of July, although that was supposed to have covered constitutional amendments that were less-sweeping than an outright ban on gay marriages. At this point, no other potential amendments have been offered, so it is unclear whether that hearing will take place.

Once the hearings are completed, Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is supposed to make a recommendation to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on what legislative approach the GOP Conference should take.

While Sensenbrenner hasn’t endorsed any particular proposal, GOP insiders said the Hostettler bill is considered “very attractive” and could garner wide support among those lawmakers who oppose gay marriage but are reluctant to amend the Constitution.

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