WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelming yesterday to bar federal recognition of same-sex marriages and to permit states to ignore such marriages sanctioned in other states.
The bill now goes to the White House for President Clinton's promised signature.
But in a surprisingly narrow outcome on another measure involving gay rights, the Senate defeated by a single vote a separate bill that for the first time would have banned discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace.
The message sent by the lopsided vote against recognizing same-sex marriages, 85-14, and the much closer margin, 50-49, on the anti-discrimination bill, highlighted the point at which the Senate draws a line on gay rights.
No Republican voted against the marriage bill, while eight Republicans voted for the anti-discrimination bill.
"People don't want to go too far on changing marriage and traditional relationships," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who supported the marriage bill and the anti-discrimination measure.
"But the feeling is when someone wants to work someplace, they ought to be able to get a job."
The bill barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages, the Defense of Marriage Act, is identical to legislation the House approved in July by a vote of 342-67.
Clinton promised weeks ago to sign the bill, blunting an election-year issue the Republicans had hoped to use against him.
Sarbanes' office did not return several phone calls seeking comment about his support for the bill; Mikulski issued a two-page statement to explain hers.
Mikulski said she favored the measure because it reaffirmed a "basic American tenet" -- that marriage is a legal union between a man and a woman.
She noted that it allowed each state to determine what constituted marriage under its own law.
"I am against discrimination," Mikulski said, adding that "my support for the [bill] does not lessen in any way my commitment to fighting for fair treatment for gays and lesbians in the workplace."
Mikulski and Sarbanes also voted yesterday for the anti-discrimination bill that would extend to sexual orientation the federal employment protections that bar bias on the basis of race, religion and gender.
The defeat of that bill ends its chances in this Congress.
One Democrat who probably would have voted in favor of the bill, Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, was absent because of his son's cancer surgery in Little Rock.
In a 50-50 tie, Vice President Al Gore would have cast the deciding yes vote, Democrats said.
But had the Senate approved it, the anti-discrimination bill faced stiff opposition in the House, which had not taken it up.
The bill's supporters were elated by yesterday's razor-thin loss, claiming a symbolic triumph that gave their cause momentum for another vote next year.
"We came within a breath of victory today," said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group.
"We'll hit the ground running in the 105th Congress."
The only suspense surrounding the same-sex marriage bill was how large the final vote would be.
Ultimately, 32 Democrats joined all 53 Republicans in supporting the bill.
The bill's sponsors, mainly conservative Republicans, said the legislation was necessary because of expectations that a Hawaii court would rule that the state must recognize marriages between two people of the same sex.
Hawaii would be the first state to grant such recognition, but the bill's supporters foresee far wider consequences: Article IV of the U.S. Constitution requires that "full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state."
The bill does not ban marriages between partners of the same sex but is intended to inoculate states against having to recognize homosexual marriages.
Critics of the measure say the states already have the authority under the Constitution to ignore laws of other states.
"It is not mean-spirited or exclusionary," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the majority leader.
"It is a pre-emptive measure to make sure that a handful of judges, in a single state, cannot impose a radical social agenda upon the entire nation."
Pub Date: 9/11/96