WASHINGTON -- Conservative Republicans in the Senate overwhelmingly failed in their effort yesterday to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage and require all states to recognize the institution solely as the union between a man and a woman.
The vote was the first in a set designed to fire up the party's conservative base in advance of the November congressional elections. Senators immediately turned to a debate over eliminating the estate tax and plan to move shortly after that to a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting flag burning.
But some conservatives questioned whether the three hot-button issues would impress voters when senators could muster just 49 votes to ban gay marriage. They needed 60 votes to clear yesterday's procedural hurdle and 67 votes to actually approve the amendment.
Certainly Democrats appeared to feel no fear in opposing the measure as they strenuously complained that Republicans were wasting the Senate's time and ignoring far more pressing issues, such as rising gas prices, unaffordable health care costs and the war in Iraq.
Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, a politically and culturally conservative think tank, said conservatives are unimpressed by the failed marriage amendment and unlikely to be inspired by the flag issue.
"Flag burning is not something that is of great interest among the values voters, the crowd that really pushed Bush over the top in 2004," he said. "It's not that they're against it, it's just not something that they're going to jump up and down and say, 'Oh, wow, they passed it.'"
In fact, he said, they are more concerned about immigration and angry at the lack of progress to secure U.S. borders.
"They don't have warm feelings toward Republicans," Weyrich said.
Marshall Wittmann, a senior scholar at the Democratic Leadership Council, said the red-meat legislation would do little to assuage conservatives who feel neglected and upset about runaway federal spending and immigration.
"There's too much damage to the relationship for it to matter much now," Wittmann said. "It's sort of like a marriage that's been on the ropes, and the husband suddenly comes home with some flowers and the wife says, 'You could have done this a few years ago.'"
President Bush expressed disappointment with the marriage vote, which effectively kills the matter for this year, though the House plans to debate the issue in July. It takes a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress before a constitutional amendment can be sent to the states for ratification.
That, acknowledged Bush, is a difficult hurdle.
"Our nation's founders set a high bar for amending our Constitution - and history has shown us that it can take several tries before an amendment builds the two-thirds support it needs in both houses of Congress," Bush said. "My position on this issue is clear: Marriage is the most fundamental institution of our society and it should not be redefined by activist judges."
Every Democrat but two - Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia - opposed yesterday's motion to proceed with the marriage debate. While Nelson supported the amendment, Byrd said he opposed it.
Democrats felt little compunction about mocking the Republican majority for bringing the amendment to the floor.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called an amendment "unneeded and unnecessary" because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman - and allows states to make their own decisions about same-sex unions. Mikulski and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland Democrats, supported that law when it passed in the Senate a decade ago.
Mikulski derided the vote on the amendment as a political ploy, and said that if Republicans wanted to protect families, they would have used the days of debate devoted to gay marriage to discussions about how to ease the pressure on struggling families, particularly from the rising cost of health care.
"This is about protecting the Republican right wing," Mikulski said. "This is just designed to eat up time."
Conservative supporters of the amendment, however, insisted that they had broad public support for their efforts, noting that voters in Alabama on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a similar amendment to their state constitution.
"It's not a waste of time," said Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican who was the chief sponsor of the bill. "This is an important issue."
Allard and his backers attempted to declare victory despite the defeat, noting that they had scored one more vote than when the issue came up in 2004. Also, they said they would have had a second, additional vote of support if Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, had been present.
But they also lost the votes of two Republicans who had supported them previously - Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
The bill's backers also said they would continue fighting for the amendment long after the midterm elections come to a close.
"The forces that drive this debate precede this election cycle and will continue after this election cycle," said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, a coalition dedicated to seeing children raised by a mother and a father.
While most senators were looking to the midterm elections in 2006, others expected the gay marriage ban to influence the 2008 presidential campaign. Many lawmakers said they believe Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, brought the issue up, despite its predictable defeat, to boost his presidential prospects.
Also, the Family Research Council, a socially conservative advocacy group, targeted likely 2008 candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, with a large ad in USA Today. (Both senators oppose the constitutional amendment.)
"Senators McCain and Clinton are ignoring America on gay marriage," the advertisement declared. "The record is clear. When allowed to speak, Americans speak up against activist judges in defense of marriage."
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.