Nebraska's Nelson says he won't co-sponsor marriage amendment

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — regarded by many Republicans as their best hope for bipartisan support of a gay-marriage amendment backed by the White House and GOP congressional leaders — says he will not co-sponsor the bill.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — regarded by many Republicans as their best hope for bipartisan support of a gay-marriage amendment backed by the White House and GOP congressional leaders — says he will not co-sponsor the bill.
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Sen. Wayne Allard.

“We were approached by Senator Allard’s office to co-sponsor his amendment,” Nelson’s spokesman, David DiMartino, said, referring to the bill’s sponsor, Republican Wayne Allard of Colorado. “We declined.”

Nelson had been one of several Democrats who Republicans believed could be coaxed into supporting the marriage amendment because he is a conservative Democrat from a red state who is up for reelection in 2006.

With Nelson no longer a possible co-sponsor, it looks unlikely that Senate Republicans will be able to corral any Democratic support: Nelson was one of only three Senate Democrats to support a full vote on the amendment in the last Congress, and he remains one of the only Democrats with whom the administration and congressional Republicans believe they can work.

The Nebraska senator also is the only Democrat known to be open to private Social Security accounts. And shortly after President Bush won a second term, he offered Nelson the top spot at the Department of Agriculture, which Nelson declined.

Other Democrats who had been mentioned by Republicans as possible co-sponsors include Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), all of whom also are up for reelection, and Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).

Allard spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said yesterday that the senator would “continue to talk with both sides of the aisle.” De Rocha added: “The senator thinks that the amendment stands on its merits, and he’ll continue to ask other members to support it.”

Yesterday, Allard formally asked Johnson for his support, De Rocha said. She added that the South Dakota senator “said he’s mulling it over.” Earlier in the day, a Capitol Hill source said Johnson would “never” cosponsor the bill but left open the possibility of him voting for it.

In the hours leading up to yesterday evening’s State of the Union address, De Rocha said Allard and his staff were “focused like a laser beam” on what President Bush might say about the amendment.

A Senate Democratic aide scoffed at Republican efforts to cajole Democrats into supporting the bill.

“This is all more politics and this is all about them raising money more than this is about them trying to pass a gay-marriage amendment,” the aide said. “They know they don’t have the votes to pass this. This is a fundraising tool.”

The aide also said Nelson’s decision was unlikely to influence other Democrats, who, the aide said, have already made up their minds about the issue. Referring to the GOP, the aide said: “This works [more] to their benefit, to have this issue linger, than it does to have it actually move forward.”

A Republican Senate aide pointed out that Nelson’s decision not to co-sponsor the bill did not forbid the senator from ultimately voting for it. “Timing is critical,” the aide said.

The aide argued that as gay-rights activists pursue court challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and state measures, including a new provision in Nebraska’s Constitution, pressure on Democrats will grow to support the Federal Marriage Amendment.

“If [a federal judge] were to rule that Nebraska’s state constitution is federally unconstitutional, then that strikes against the whole states-rights thing,” the aide said.

Several Senate Democrats, including Ben Nelson, say that while they are against gay marriage they also oppose a constitutional amendment and would rather leave the issue to the states.

Referring to Senate Democrats, the Republican aide continued: “Their basic argument for most of them, not just the conservative ones, is they don’t think existing laws are going to go down. … Even some of the Judiciary [Committee] types, even [former Sen. Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.], had said, if it’s clear that DOMA or some other key indicator was going down, then they would revisit it.”

Another Senate Democratic aide with greater understanding of the ins and outs of the marriage-amendment debate dismissed that logic, saying the threshold for enacting an amendment had not been met.

“There’s no crisis that calls for amending the Constitution,” the Democratic aide said. “The lack of any crisis adds to the impression that this is more about politics than it is about law or preserving the Constitution, that it’s an opportunity for scoring political points purporting to address a crisis that doesn’t exist.”

The Democratic aide noted that two weeks ago a federal judge in Florida upheld DOMA. The aide added that even if the federal judge in Nebraska rules the state constitutional provision unconstitutional, that decision would still come under review by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “There’s no evidence that … left-wing judges are going to invalidate the act,” the aide said.

The aide further argued that the 13 state measures that were adopted last year defining marriage as between a man and woman strengthen — not weaken, as Republicans contend — the anti-marriage-amendment argument that no change to the Constitution is needed. Republicans note that those measures passed not only in solidly GOP states but in Michigan and Oregon as well.

The aide’s remarks were similar to those made by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, at a March 2004 hearing. “I do not understand how anyone could support this amendment if they believe in the rights of states, the integrity of the Constitution or in fundamental fairness,” Leahy said at that time.