WASHINGTON — The Senate rejected a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage by a wide margin Wednesday, delivering a stinging defeat to President Bush and other Republicans who had hoped the issue would rally GOP voters for the November elections.
The senators' vote was 49-48 to limit debate and bring the amendment to a yes-or-no decision. That was 11 short of the 60 needed, killing the measure in the Senate for this year.
President Bush suggested the ban was proper and its time would come. He said, "Our nation's founders set a high bar for amending our Constitution, and history has shown us that it can take several tries before an amendment builds the two-thirds support it needs in both houses of Congress."
Democrats suggested it was all about conservative politics.
"Why is it when Republicans are all for reducing the federal government's impact on people's lives until it comes to these stinging litmus test issues, whether gay marriage or end of life, they suddenly want the federal government to intervene?" asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "It makes no sense other than throwing red meat to a certain constituency."
The 49 votes to keep the amendment alive were one more than the measure received the last time the Senate voted, in 2004. Proponents had predicted the amendment would get at least a 51-vote majority in the 100-member Senate with the gain of four Republican seats since then.
It takes two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress to send a proposed amendment to the states for ratification. The House will take up the issue next month.
Despite the defeat, amendment backers insisted progress had been made because the debate over three days raised the issue's profile and will force candidates to answer for their votes on the campaign trail.
"Eventually, Congress is going to have to catch up to the wisdom of the American people or the American people will change Congress for the better," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
"We're not going to stop until marriage between a man and a woman is protected," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
Montana's two senators took opposite sides on the issue. Democrat Max Baucus voted to reject the constitutional amendment, saying it would undermine each state's ability to decide the issue for itself.
"To me, marriage is between a man and a woman," Baucus said, noting that he supported the state's ballot initiative in 2004 that defined marriage as between one man and one woman and also voted for the similar federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
"But this vote is about states' rights," Baucus said. "Massachusetts shouldn't decide what's right for Montana. We decide what's right for Montana. The courts shouldn't be involved."
Republican Sen. Conrad Burns voted to move forward with the constitutional amendment, calling it the "only way" to ensure marriage laws approved by voters won't be struck down by judges. He also immediately tried to establish it as an issue in his re-election campaign this fall.
"I am generally hesitant to amend the Constitution," Burns said. "There are few things as permanent as a constitutional amendment, and it is something that clearly should not be done lightly. However, when activist judges repeatedly take steps to overrule the clear voice of a majority of the people, we are left with very few options."
Wyoming Sens. Michael Enzi and Craig Thomas voted to move forward with the constitutional amendment. The two Republicans had also voted in favor of a similar measure two years ago.
"It is important to have this debate because the institution of marriage is under attack by some rogue local officials and activist judges who wish to push their agenda onto the majority of Americans," Enzi said. "We need to have this debate to give the American people the opportunity to define marriage as they see fit. We need to remove the definition of marriage from the courts and return the decision-making power to the American people."
Enzi co-sponsored the amendment, as he has done in the past, and said he will continue trying to rally support among his colleagues for it.
"I am a strong supporter of traditional marriage, and my position has always been that marriage is between a man and a woman," Thomas said. "A constitutional amendment is a very serious measure and should only be done with extremely careful thought and deliberation. However, such a step may be the only way to protect the historical definition of marriage."
Thomas said he has always advocated state and local control and noted that a number of states have approved state constitutional amendments on marriage. "These ballot initiatives prohibit state courts from imposing same-sex marriages on those states, but will not prevent federal courts from invalidating them," he said.
Most bitter to the amendments' authors was the loss of support in their own GOP caucus. Two Republicans changed their votes from yes in 2004 to no this time: Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska did not vote Wednesday because he was traveling with Bush.
All told, seven Republicans voted to kill the amendment. The five others were Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snowe of Maine and John Sununu of New Hampshire.
Gregg said that in 2004, he believed a Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in that state would undermine the authority of other states, like his, to prohibit such unions.
"Fortunately, such legal pandemonium has not ensued," Gregg said. "The past two years have shown that federalism, not more federal laws, is a viable and preferable approach."
A majority of Americans define marriage as a union of a man and a woman, as the proposed amendment does, according to a poll out this week by ABC News. But an equal majority oppose amending the Constitution over the issue, the poll found.
The tally Wednesday put the ban 18 votes short of the 67 needed for the Senate to approve a constitutional amendment.
Supporters of the amendment acknowledged disappointment in the vote and, to some extent, Bush's advocacy. "He could have done more, but he doesn't have a vote in this one," Brownback said of the president.
Forty-five of the 50 states have acted to define traditional marriage in ways that would ban same-sex marriage — 19 with state constitutional amendments and 26 with statutes.
The proposed federal amendment would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages. After approval by Congress, it would have to be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Senate Democrat who supported the amendment. Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia voted "yes" on Wednesday's motion to move forward with an up-or-down vote on the amendment but said he opposed the measure itself.
Three senators did not vote: Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Rockefeller of West Virginia as well as Republican Hagel of Nebraska.