Gay marriage debate fails to give Bush a boost

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The Independent US

Iraq is going to hell in a hand-basket. The trade and budget deficits are spinning out of control, and petrol prices have gone through the roof. Yet the US Senate has devoted two days to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that everyone knew had not the slightest hope of passage.

In the event the body that calls itself - without a blush of embarrassment - the "greatest deliberative body on Earth" yesterday backed by 49-48 a procedural motion to end debate and bring the measure to a formal vote. But the majority in favour of the guillotine was 11 votes less than the 60 required. It also fell 18 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

And even a successful Senate vote would have been only the start of it. The House of Representatives would have had to follow suit. Then the proposed gay marriage ban would have to be ratified by three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states. Only then, probably after several years, would it have become the 27th amendment to the constitution.

But this was not an exercise designed to tackle the real problems facing the country. It was a cynical exercise in pandering by a beleaguered White House and Republican majority in Congress, intended to save their political skins. President George Bush and his master strategist Karl Rove have played an identical gambit before, and with some success - ahead of the 2004 election in which mobilising his social conservative base was crucial to victory.

This time Mr Bush does not face re-election, but his own political position, and that of his party, is far weaker than two years ago. At November's mid-term elections, the Republicans could now easily lose control of one, if not both chambers of Congress.

Not surprisingly, the Bush/Rove team reverted to what worked in the past. If anything however, yesterday was a setback. Supporters had been hoping for more than 50 votes in favour. Instead, they hardly fared better than in 2004, when a similar procedural vote was narrowly rejected, by a 48-50 margin.

More important, Mr Bush's heart was visibly not in the enterprise - nor was that of the Republican best placed to succeed him.

"Americans are not convinced their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples," said Senator John McCain of Arizona, front- runner for the party's presidential nomination in 2008.

Outwardly at least Mr Bush had begged to differ, arguing that heterosexual marriage must be protected from "activist judges" by its enshrinement in the constitution, beyond the reach of any court in the land.

In the meantime, the Senate is now to address the outlawing of flag-burning, another issue dear to the hearts of true believers, but of limited relevance to ordinary Americans.