A proposed federal gay marriage ban -- debated Monday in the Senate and headed toward defeat in a Wednesday vote -- prompted this question to White House press secretary Tony Snow.
"Can you stand there and say with a straight face that there is not a political dimension to this?'' Snow was asked.
"Of course there's a political dimension to it,'' Snow said. "There's going to be a Senate vote on it, for heaven's sake.''
(today's column continued)
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), not the White House, made gay marriage the centerpiece of the agenda this week.
Frist, a 2008 presidential maybe, is pushing this hot-button issue, a rallying cry for social conservatives. Backlash over gay marriage is credited for increasing GOP turnout in the 2004 election, after judges in Massachusetts and San Francisco cleared the way for gay weddings.
Frist put the proposed amendment on the Senate schedule, though the Senate defeated the question in 2004.
But issues don't die in Congress. With mid-term elections five months away, wedge legislation is coming out of the closet.
After winning a second term, Bush put the gay-marriage amendment on the back burner, but turned up the heat in the past few days, "driven in many ways by the legislative calendar,'' Snow said.
This comes in the context of Bush's approval ratings at record lows. His conservative base is divided over soaring spending for Hurricane Katrina and his embrace of an immigration overhaul favored by Democrats.
The president made the proposed Marriage Protection Amendment the topic of his Saturday radio address. Monday, a solicitous administration invited about 150 anti-gay marriage opinion leaders to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to hear it from Bush himself.
"You are here because you strongly support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and I am proud to stand with you,'' Bush said.
The point of this exercise, which will consume the Senate through Wednesday, is to produce a roll call to be translated into political ads, Internet rants and direct mail pieces next November putting Democrats on the defensive.
The same basic politics of backlash is at work in Illinois. A coalition of conservative groups is trying to put on the November ballot a nonbinding advisory referendum urging state lawmakers to define marriage in Illinois as only between a man and a woman. The practical impact of this would be to increase GOP turnout, which is why Illinois Democrats will do everything they can to try to disqualify the question from the ballot.
Leaders usually never call a bill they know will fail. Gay marriage is one of those exceptions. In 2004, the proposed amendment received 48 of the 67 Senate votes needed to pass. Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said when the votes are counted they hoped to "show progress.''
It's wedge season.