WASHINGTON - The Senate dealt an election-year defeat Wednesday to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, rejecting pleas from President Bush and fellow conservatives that the measure was needed to safeguard an institution that has flourished for thousands of years.
The vote was 48-50, 12 short of the 60 needed to keep the measure alive. Six Republicans joined dozens of Democrats in sealing the amendment's fate.
"I would argue that the future of our country hangs in the balance because the future of marriage hangs in the balance," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a leader in the fight to approve the measure. "Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?"
But Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said there was no "urgent need" to amend the Constitution. "Marriage is a sacred union between men and women. That is what the vast majority of Americans believe. It's what virtually all South Dakotans believe. It's what I believe."
"In South Dakota, we've never had a single same sex marriage and we won't have any," he said. "It's prohibited by South Dakota law as it is now in 38 other states. There is no confusion. There is no ambiguity."
Supporters conceded in advance they would fail to win the support needed to advance the measure, and vowed to renew their efforts.
"I don't think it's going away after this vote," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Tuesday on the eve of the test vote. "I think the issue will remain alive," he added.
Whatever its future in Congress, there also were signs that supporters of the amendment intended to use it in the campaign already unfolding.
"The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," Republican senatorial candidate John Thune says in a radio commercial airing in South Dakota. "They have done it in Massachusetts and they can do it here," adds Thune, who is challenging Daschle for his seat.
"Thune's ad suggests that some are using this amendment more to protect the Republican majority than to protect marriage," said Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Daschle's campaign.
At issue was an amendment providing that marriage within the United States "shall consist only of a man and a woman."
A second sentence said that neither the federal 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." Some critics argue that the effect of that provision would be to ban civil unions, and its inclusion in the amendment complicated efforts by GOP leaders to gain support from wavering Republicans.
Bush urged the Republican-controlled Congress last February to approve a constitutional amendment, saying it was needed to stop judges from changing the definition of the "most enduring human institution."
Bush's fall rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, opposes the amendment, as does his vice presidential running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Both men skipped the vote.
In all, 45 Republicans and three Democrats voted to keep the measure alive. Six Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one independent in opposition.
The odds have never favored passage in the current Congress, in part because many Democrats oppose it, but also because numerous conservatives are hesitant to overrule state prerogatives on the issue.
At the same time, Republican strategists contend the issue could present a difficult political choice to Democrats, who could be pulled in one direction by polls showing that a majority of voters oppose gay marriage, and pulled in the other by homosexual voters and social liberals who support it. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in March showed about four in 10 support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and half oppose it.
Democrats said that Bush and Republicans were using the issue to distract attention from the war in Iraq and the economy.
"The issue is not ripe. It is not needed. It's a waste of our time. We should be dealing with other issues," said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court had thrust the matter upon the Senate. The ruling opened the way for same sex marriages in the state, and Frist predicted the impact would eventually be far broader.
"Same-sex marriage will be exported to all 50 states. The question is no longer whether the Constitution will be amended. The only question is who will amend it and how will it be amended," he added.
He said the choice was "activist judges" on the one hand and lawmakers on the other.