WASHINGTON -- The House emphatically rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage Thursday, the latest in a string of conservative pet causes advanced by Republican leaders in the run-up to Election Day.
The vote was 227-186, 49 votes shy of the two-thirds needed for approval of an amendment that President Bush backed but the Senate had previously scuttled.
"God created Adam and Eve, He didn't create Adam and Steve," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., on behalf of a measure that supporters said was designed to protect an institution as old as civilization itself.
Democrats countered that Republicans were motivated by election-year politics as much as anything, particularly since a Senate vote this year ended any immediate chance the amendment could be sent to the states for ratification.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, accused GOP leaders of "raw political cynicism" and said they hoped to "create the fodder for a demagogic political ad."
The measure drew the support of 191 Republicans and 36 Democrats. Voting against it were 158 Democrats, 27 Republicans and one independent.
The debate on the gay marriage amendment came a day after the House voted 250-171 to overturn a 28-year municipal ban on handgun ownership in the District of Columbia. And last week, Republicans forced a vote on legislation to protect the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance from court challenge. It passed, 247-173.
While both of those measures face uncertain prospects in the Senate, they -- along with the gay marriage proposal -- appeal to voting groups whose support Republicans are counting on in the Nov. 2 elections. Recent surveys in battleground states in the presidential race indicate roughly one-quarter of Bush's supporters say moral or family values are uppermost in their minds.
The gay marriage amendment said marriage in the United States "shall consist only of a man and a woman." It also would have required that neither the U.S. Constitution nor any state constitution "shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
Even among majority Republicans, the issue generated dissent.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was the principal speaker on behalf of the measure, taking a role that is almost always reserved for the chairman of the committee with jurisdiction. In this case, though, the leadership bypassed the Judiciary Committee, and GOP officials said the panel's chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., made clear he wanted no part of the debate. His spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment.
DeLay said the need for congressional action was "forced upon us by activist judges trying to legislate from the bench." He noted that under 1996 legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, marriage is defined as between a man of a woman.
"One would think this would be the end of the story. But it is not," DeLay said. The law is "under an incessant and coordinated attack in the federal courts," where he said judges feel a greater "responsibility to their own political ideology than the Constitution."
"The limitations of traditional marriage rest not on an intent to discriminate, but on what is most beneficial for society and children as evidenced by volumes of social science research," added Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo.
"Traditional marriage is worth preserving, because the nuclear family is far and away the best environment in which to raise children. Every child deserves both a father and a mother," said Musgrave, whose persistent advocacy for the measure has gained her national notice unusual for a first-term lawmaker.
Critics saw it differently.
"We feel love and we feel it in a way different than you," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is openly gay. "We feel it with someone of the same sex, male or female, and we look at your institution of marriage and we see the joy it brings. How do we hurt you when we share it?"
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. quoted Vice President Dick Cheney -- who has a gay daughter -- as saying, "The fact of the matter is that we live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everybody."
Public polls show strong opposition to gay marriage, but opinion is about evenly divided regarding a federal constitutional amendment to ban it.
At the same time, voters in 11 states will decide the fate of proposed amendments to their state constitutions this fall, and opponents of bans on gay marriage concede they will be difficult to stop.
The issue has gained prominence this year. Massachusetts residents have had first-in-the-nation rights to same sex marriages since May, the result of a ruling by the state's highest court. Additionally, a judge in Washington recently struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.