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Bush amendment proposal prompts strong reaction

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Stay with CNN-USA for ongoing debate and live coverage of reactions to President Bush's call for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage -- and the run-up to the coming 10-state "Super Tuesday" primary contest.
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CNN's David Mattingly on the debate swirling around a proposed ban on same-sex marriage.
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CNN's John King on President Bush's call for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
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CNN's Bill Schneider reports on how the same-sex marriage issue has turned into a debate over amending the Constitution.
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Same-sex marriages
George W. Bush
Civil Rights
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Reaction to President Bush's call Tuesday for a constitutional amendment that would effectively ban gay marriage fell largely along party and ideological lines.

Bush said such an amendment would "prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever." (Full story)

Top Democrats and a gay civil rights group said Bush's support of an amendment was designed to draw attention from his record as president. Republican leaders said an amendment was needed to protect the foundation of American society.

The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress to pass an amendment. Then it must be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the 50 states. (Challenges in passing an amendment)

A spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert said that while it would be difficult for such an amendment to get the 291 votes necessary to pass the House, the issue would still serve to define the choice available for voters come November.

"Sometimes you win for losing," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery, noting the issue would draw a clear line between Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Democrats accused Bush of using the issue for political gain and trying to draw attention away from his record.

"President Bush came to the White House pledging to unite us and is now seeking to divide the country for his own political gain," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement.

Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Bush's support for such an amendment makes it clear that his re-election strategy is to "use wedge issues and the politics of fear to divide the nation."

The four-term senator has said he supports civil unions and equal protection for gays and lesbians but that he opposes marriage for them. He also said he believes the matter should be decided on the state level.

Civil unions grant couples most of the rights of state civil marriages, except the name, but provide none of the federal benefits of marriage, such as Social Security benefits.

"All Americans should be concerned when a president who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the Constitution of the United States at the start of his re-election campaign," Kerry said in a statement.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said he opposes such an amendment and believes the issue should be left up to the states.

"If [Bush] really wants to help married couples, what he should be doing is helping them with their economic problems, their health care problems," Edwards told reporters during a campaign stop in Georgia.

Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts issued a statement saying Bush would "go down in history as the first president to try to write discrimination back into the Constitution."

"We have amended the Constitution only 17 times. ... [It] has often been amended to expand and protect people's rights, never to take away or restrict their rights," Kennedy said.

As top Democrats slammed Bush's announcement, several top Republicans supported the move, describing it as necessary for the foundation of American society.

"We're in the process right now of judges and vigilantes -- people taking justice into their own hands and deciding to change the law without either the courts or the legislature acting," said Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

He was referring a ruling by Massachusetts' highest court directing the state Legislature to allow same-sex marriages and the decision by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Santorum said that allowing the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses "devalues what marriage is."

Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate, said an amendment that would disallow same-sex marriage would not be discriminatory.

"Every culture in the world, every civilization in the world for over 3,000 years, has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The constitutional amendment merely states that again," he said on CNN Tuesday.

The leader of the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization said Bush's call was a "desperate" attempt to help his re-election bid.

Cheryl Jacques, president of Human Rights Campaign, accused Bush of wanting to "bash gay and lesbian families."

"These are the desperate acts of a desperate president who is going to try and drag this country through a cultural war to jump-start a failing campaign," Jacques said.

But Bush also said state legislatures should be left to define "legal arrangements other than marriage," suggesting that such an amendment would allow states to establish civil unions.

That position did not sit well with some social conservatives, who want an amendment that would prevent states from recognizing same-sex marriages and civil unions alike.

If an amendment "authorizes state legislatures to confer the entire legal substance of marriage, without the name of marriage, upon persons who are not married, then it takes away with one hand what it gives with the other," said a statement by Michael Schwartz, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America.

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colorado, has submitted a proposed marriage amendment enthusiastically supported by many social conservatives.

Other conservatives oppose revising the Constitution and many moderate Republicans oppose a ban on same-sex marriage.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, who co-sponsored the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, considers that law sufficient to address the issue and thinks a constitutional amendment is "awfully strong medicine," an aide said.

The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton, defines marriage only as the legal union of a man and a woman and allows states to ignore same-sex licenses issued outside their borders if they so choose.

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report

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