WASHINGTON (AP) – Senate Republicans opened debate Friday on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, highlighting their differences with Democrats on the emotionally charged matter.

The amendment aims to settle conflicts in state legislatures and courts over gay marriage by adding language to the Constitution that states, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.”

President Bush planned to devote his Saturday radio address to the “sanctity of marriage,” and the first hours of Senate debate hinted at the political pressure boiling under the issue.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., disparaged Republicans as using the Constitution as “a bulletin board for campaign sloganeering.”

“Somehow we should find a way to restrain the impulse of some to politicize the Constitution,” he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said it was a “phony argument” to accuse the GOP of bringing the issue to a vote to make an election-year statement. Hatch then accused Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of holding inconsistent positions on marriage.

“This is the grand flip-flop, one of the grandest of all times,” he said. “A person’s head starts to spin trying to undo the logical mess.”

Kerry and his running mate John Edwards oppose gay marriage but support civil unions. Both oppose a constitutional amendment.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said voters will see the issue more starkly.

“I think a yes vote … will be a vote in favor of traditional marriage, and a no vote or ‘I didn’t care enough to show up’ vote will be perceived as against traditional marriage,” he said.

Democrats signaled they will not throw hurdles in front of the resolution, paving the way for a vote on the amendment as early as next Wednesday.

“We are ready to rock and roll on the debate on this,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Sen. Wayne Allard, the Colorado Republican who drafted the amendment, conceded that it is supported by only about half the Senate – well less than the two-thirds needed to approve a change in the Constitution.

The vote puts Democrats and Republicans on the spot. One senator acknowledged the political risk in trying to walk a line supporting both traditional marriage and gay rights.

“I intend to be your champion on many issues in the future, if you want me,” Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a leader in efforts to make attacks against gays a federal hate crime, said while addressing his comments to gay and lesbian voters.

“But on this one, I have to be able to get up in the morning and look in the mirror and be true to myself,” he said.

If senators say they’re ignoring politics, groups aligned for and against the amendment make no such claims.

MoveOn.org, a liberal political organization, released a television advertisement to coincide with next week’s debate that says President Bush called for the amendment as a diversion from more pressing problems.

“He’s using the politics of hate to distract us from the real issues,” said the group’s executive director, Peter Schurman. “He wants to move America backwards by enshrining discrimination in the U.S. Constitution.”

A coalition of conservative organizations supporting the amendment delivered more than 1 million signatures on petitions, a visible stack of boxes showing voters in support of the marriage amendment, and promised to deliver more.

“Americans from Arkansas to Utah see the urgency of this issue,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “Now we are just waiting for the Capitol to catch up.”

AP-ES-07-09-04 1650EDT



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