WASHINGTON — Administration officials say they are planning an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples, and they are weighing whether President Bush should promote the plan next week in his State of the Union address.
For months, administration officials have worked with conservative groups on the proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain "healthy marriages."
This is a way for the president to address the concerns of conservatives and to solidify his conservative base.
The officials said they believed that the measure was especially timely because they were facing pressure from conservatives eager to see the federal government defend traditional marriage, after a decision by the highest court in Massachusetts. The court ruled in November that gay couples had a right to marry under the state's Constitution.
"This is a way for the president to address the concerns of conservatives and to solidify his conservative base," a presidential adviser said.
Several conservative Christian advocacy groups are pressing Mr. Bush to go further and use the State of the Union address to champion a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Leaders of these groups said they were confused by what they saw as the administration's hedging and hesitation concerning an amendment.
Administration officials said they did not know if Mr. Bush would mention the amendment, but they expressed confidence that his marriage promotion plan would please conservatives.
Ronald T. Haskins, a Republican who has previously worked on Capitol Hill and at the White House under Mr. Bush, said, "A lot of conservatives are very pleased with the healthy marriage initiative."
The proposal is the type of relatively inexpensive but politically potent initiative that appeals to White House officials at a time when they are squeezed by growing federal budget deficits.
It also plays to Mr. Bush's desire to be viewed as a "compassionate conservative," an image he sought to cultivate in his 2000 campaign. This year, administration officials said, Mr. Bush will probably visit programs trying to raise marriage rates in poor neighborhoods.
"The president loves to do that sort of thing in the inner city with black churches, and he's very good at it," a White House aide said.
In the last few years, some liberals have also expressed interest in marriage-education programs. They say a growing body of statistical evidence suggests that children fare best, financially and emotionally, in married two-parent families.
The president's proposal may not be enough, though, for some conservative groups that are pushing for a more emphatic statement from him opposing gay marriage.
"We have a hard time understanding why the reserve," said Glenn T. Stanton, a policy analyst at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization. "You see him inching in the right direction. But the question for us is, why this inching? Why not just get there?"
The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of a national group called the Traditional Values Coalition, has started an e-mail campaign urging Mr. Bush to push for an amendment opposing the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Other groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, are pushing more quietly for the same thing, through contacts with White House officials, especially Karl Rove, the president's chief political aide, who has taken a personal interest in maintaining contacts with evangelical groups.
In an interview with ABC News last month, Mr. Bush was asked if he would support a constitutional amendment against gay marriage and gay civil unions.
"If necessary," he said, "I will support a constitutional amendment which would honor marriage between a man and a woman, codify that, and will — the position of this administration is that whatever legal arrangements people want to make, they're allowed to make, so long as it's embraced by the state, or does start at the state level."
Asked to cite the circumstances in which a constitutional amendment might be needed, Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said on Tuesday, "That is a decision the president has to make in due time."
The House of Representatives has approved a proposal to promote marriage as part of a bill to reauthorize the 1996 welfare law, but the bill is bogged down in the Senate.
Without waiting for Congress to act, the administration has retained consultants to help state and local government agencies, community organizations and religious groups develop marriage-promotion programs.
Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families, said: "Marriage programs do work. On average, children raised by their own parents in healthy, stable married families enjoy better physical and mental health and are less likely to be poor."
Prof. Linda J. Waite, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Chicago, compiled an abundance of evidence to support such assertions in the book "The Case for Marriage" (Doubleday, 2000). Ms. Waite, a former president of the Population Association of America, said she was a liberal Democrat, but not active in politics.
Some women's groups like the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund oppose government programs that promote marriage. "Such programs intrude on personal privacy, may ignore the risk of domestic violence and may coerce women to marry," said Timothy J. Casey, a lawyer at the fund.
Administration officials said their goal was "healthy marriage," not marriage for its own sake.
"We know this is a sensitive area," Dr. Horn said. "We don't want to come in with a heavy hand. All services will be voluntary. We want to help couples, especially low-income couples, manage conflict in healthy ways. We know how to teach problem-solving, negotiation and listening skills. This initiative will not force anyone to get or stay married. The last thing we'd want is to increase the rate of domestic violence against women."
Under the president's proposal, federal money could be used for specific activities like advertising campaigns to publicize the value of marriage, instruction in marriage skills and mentoring programs that use married couples as role models.
Federal officials said they favored premarital education programs that focus on high school students; young adults interested in marriage; engaged couples; and unmarried couples at the moment of a child's birth, when the parents are thought to have the greatest commitment to each other.
Alan M. Hershey, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J., said his company had a $19.8 million federal contract to measure the effectiveness of such programs for unwed parents. Already, Mr. Hershey said, he is providing technical assistance to marriage-education projects in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas.
A major purpose, he said, is to help people "communicate about money, sex, child-raising and other difficult issues that come up in their relationships."
Dr. Horn said that federal money for marriage promotion would be available only to heterosexual couples. As a federal official, he said, he is bound by a 1996 statute, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for any program established by Congress. The law states, "The word `marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."
But Dr. Horn said: "I don't have any problem with the government providing support services to gay couples under other programs. If a gay couple had a child and they were poor, they might be eligible for food stamps or cash assistance."
Sheri E. Steisel, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said, "The Bush administration has raised this issue to the national level, but state legislators of both parties are interested in offering marriage education and premarital counseling to low-income couples."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company