WASHINGTON -- President Bush plans to endorse a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, key advisers said yesterday.
Bush plans to endorse language introduced by Representative Marilyn Musgrave, Republican of Colorado, that backers contend would ban gay marriage but not prevent state legislatures from allowing the kind of civil unions and same-sex partnership arrangements that exist in Vermont and California.
Bush has moved incrementally over seven months toward embracing a gay-marriage ban, and the advisers said he will clarify his position with a public statement shortly.
"We'd like to see Congress take it up, and the president will be supportive," a top Republican official said. "We would like to see both chambers act sooner rather than later."
Bush's move could put cultural issues at the forefront of an election year that had been dominated by economic and national-security issues.
The White House strategy, designed to minimize alienation of moderate voters, calls for emphasizing that Bush is for traditional marriage, not against gay people. Opinion polls have found widely varying support for a constitutional amendment, depending on the way the question is phrased, suggesting that voters have ambiguous feelings on the subject.
Republican officials said Bush's decision to proceed now was driven partly by his desire to start the general election campaign on a fresh issue, at a time when his credibility has been battered by questions about prewar warnings of unconventional weapons in Iraq, as well as gaps in documents about his National Guard service.
The White House counsel's office began researching the issue after the US Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in June. In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry. The same court ruled last week that civil unions would not be an acceptable alternative.
Bush signaled the direction of his thinking in last month's State of the Union address, where he stopped just short of endorsing an amendment but said the nation "must defend the sacrament of marriage."
Musgrave's proposal, called the Federal Marriage Amendment, states: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."
The amendment's authors say it is a compromise that would not stop state Legislatures from allowing civil unions. Gay rights groups disagree. Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, which supports marriage rights for gays, said the White House and "the Christian right" are "being deliberately deceptive." He said the "vague and sweeping language" of the proposed amendment's second sentence "is intended to deny any other measure of protection, including civil unions and domestic partnerships."
Republican officials said Bush's embrace of an amendment is one facet of his reelection campaign's plan to portray the Democratic front-runner, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachustetts, as a liberal who is outside the nation's mainstream.
Kerry opposes gay marriage but does not support a constitutional amendment, his campaign said yesterday. "I believe and have fought for the principle that we should protect the fundamental rights of gay and lesbian couples, from inheritance to health benefits," said a statement he issued. "I believe the right answer is civil unions. I oppose gay marriage and disagree with the Massachusetts court's decision."
Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist and former Kerry campaign manager, said the issue carries risk for Bush. "When Republicans are in a pinch, they always look for the cultural wedge issue," he said. "Bush's margin of victory in 2000, such as it was, came from moderate suburban voters taking Bush's word that he was a different kind of Republican, a compassionate conservative. Issues like this look mean-spirited."
Republican strategists said they believe the amendment could take years to pass in Congress with the required two-thirds of each chamber. After that, it must be approved by the Legislatures of three-quarters of the states.
Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, a group of religious leaders that has pushed for a constitutional amendment for three years, said separate hearings will take place in the House and Senate judiciary committees, probably before May 17, when the Massachusetts court decision takes effect.
Daniels said he sees "a good chance" that the hearings will result in minor wording changes to make clear that the amendment would not block state Legislatures from enacting civil unions. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said organizations on the Christian right will continue to oppose civil unions at the state level. "I think civil unions are a problem, but I don't think you fight both of those battles at the same time on the federal level," he said.