Three of those Democrats — Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson and Byrd — are up for reelection in 2006. All of their states supported President Bush in 2004.
“The state of the negotiations is very delicate,” said Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), the lead sponsor of the bill.
De Rocha declined to confirm the names of the Democrats meeting with Republicans about the marriage amendment. “We don’t want to scare anyone off,” she said.
If the Democrats sign on to the marriage amendment, it would mark a shift from the last Congress, when 19 Republicans and no Democrats co-sponsored the bill.
Most of the Democrats who have been mentioned as potential co-sponsors have staked out a middle ground between their party’s base and that of the Republicans. These senators say they oppose gay marriage but are leery of a constitutional amendment, preferring to leave the matter to the states.
Conservatives counter that the issue already has been taken out of the states’ hands by judges who, backers of the amendment say, are imposing a liberal agenda on voters. The purpose of the amendment, supporters add, is to let voters and elected state legislatures decide what to do.
Republicans suggested that the recognition that similar state measures passed by wide margins across the country last year lent the amendment momentum.
A Senate Republican aide speculated: “You’re going to see more states lining up to have these ballot initiatives because they don’t want to be forced into this [after such an initiative passes]. They want marriage to be between a man and a woman.”
The aide added: “This thing is still hot. It’s hot in the courts.” Referring to the Democrats, the aide said, “We think that a lot of them, if they start to see that this is not going to go away, will start gravitating to our side.”
Republicans called Ben Nelson and Byrd obvious possible co-sponsors, given that they voted yes on a cloture vote on the marriage amendment last year. There was no floor vote on the amendment itself.
Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading gay and lesbian rights group, downplayed talk of Ben Nelson’s co-sponsoring the bill.
“I wouldn’t read too much into his vote on cloture,” Stachelberg said. “I believe he understands discrimination and fairness and freedom and will make a decision on this constitutional amendment accordingly. He’s not about the politics of this. He’s about the policy.”
Salazar was a less obvious possibility. While he came out against same-sex marriage in his 2004 campaign, he has not said anything indicating support for an amendment. Also, unlike Nelson’s Nebraska and Byrd’s West Virginia, Salazar’s home state of Colorado has a sizable liberal base that the Democrat cannot afford to alienate in a general election.
Salazar spokesman Cody Wertz could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Other Democrats mentioned as possible co-sponsors are Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Evan Bayh of Indiana. But Lincoln recently won reelection by 12 points, after having voted no on the cloture vote in the last Congress. A spokesman for Johnson, Noah Pinegar, said Republicans had not discussed the bill with the senator. Bayh also opposed a full vote on the bill, but some Republicans expect him to shift right as he jockeys for a possible 2008 presidential run.
For now, Stachelberg said, her organization, which has 600,000 members nationwide, is not worried about the bill’s going very far. Noting that the House was approximately 50 votes shy of the two-thirds needed, she said: “I think most people on the Hill believe that the Marriage Protection Amendment does not have anywhere near the votes to pass.”
She added that defeat of the amendment is her group’s No. 1 priority in the 109th Congress.
De Rocha, Allard’s spokeswoman, dismissed suggestions that President Bush, who recently cast doubt on the bill’s prospects, had tempered his support for the amendment. She said the White House had offered nothing but support.
She also pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had made the amendment S.J. Res. 1. “I think that was an indication the leadership believes this is an important piece of legislation,” De Rocha said.
Republicans backing the bill also feel energized by the support of the seven new senators who joined their ranks this year. All the recently elected Republicans are co-sponsors.