The rules of decorum that typically accompany debates in the Senate were not in evidence Thursday as the back-and-forth over a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage turned nasty and personal.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 along party lines to approve the constitutional amendment, with Democrats charging that the majority Republican Party was using the issue to shore up its conservative base in advance of this November's midterm elections.
The vote came after a shouting match that ended with Democrat Russ Feingold marching out of the chambers and Republican Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter shouting after him, "If you want to leave, good riddance," according to The Associated Press.
Specter's anger was preceded by a comment from Feingold, in which he said he opposed the amendment, expressed his reverence for the Constitution and announced he intended to leave the meeting.
"I don't need to be lectured by you!" Specter shouted, "You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I." The scrap ended with Feingold shooting back, "I've enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman. See ya." In a further twist, despite voting to approve the amendment, Specter said he was "totally opposed" to it, but thought it deserved a vote in the Senate.
The amendment states that, "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any state, 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."
"The American people support protecting traditional marriage, and we should give this amendment due consideration through the full legislative process," Republican Senator Sam Brownback said. "We must continue to fight for the protection of traditional marriage."
It now advances to the full Senate for a June 5 vote, where, according to the AP, it has little chance of passing. In order to be added to the Constitution, the measure would have to be approved by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states. An earlier attempt to pass a gay-marriage ban in Congress failed in 2004.
Since a Massachusetts court ruled in 2003 that the state legislature couldn't ban same-sex marriage, at least 13 other states have passed amendments banning gay marriage, while Vermont and Connecticut have legalized civil unions. According to a Reuters report, legal challenges seeking permission for gays and lesbians to marry are pending in 10 states. On Tuesday, a Georgia state court struck down a state ban (see "Judge Rules Georgia's Gay Marriage Ban Unconstitutional"). According to a March poll by the Pew Research center, 51 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, down from 63 percent in February 2004.