A constitutional amendment seeking a national ban on gay marriage, strongly backed by US President George W. Bush and conservative Christian groups, failed to pass the US Senate.
The Republican-controlled upper chamber failed to endorse the amendment despite a majority of senators backing the proposal in a 49 to 48 vote. The measure required the backing of two-thirds of the Senate for it to be approved and taken forward to a formal vote.
With just five months before November legislative elections that are expected to be dominated by the war in Iraq, illegal immigration and soaring energy bills, Bush has called for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
Gay rights groups applauded the amendment's defeat. The Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay rights group, said in a statement that the "Senate gave a resounding defeat to the voices of intolerance who are trying to use the Constitution as a political tool".
The group thanked Republican Senator John McCain and other lawmakers for opposing the measure in a statement on its website.
Senior Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy criticized Bush's use of a constitutional amendment to push the issue.
"The Constitution is too important to be used for partisan political purposes. It is not a billboard on which to hang political posters or slogans seeking to stir public passions for political ends," Leahy said.
Bush pushed for a national ban on homosexual marriage in speeches on Monday and Saturday. Political observers say the issue plays well with Bush's conservative Republican base, but that it was unlikely to become law.
"I call on the Congress to pass this amendment, send it to the states for ratification so we can take this issue out of the hands of over-reaching judges and put it back where it belongs -- in the hands of the American people," Bush had said Monday.
Bush targeted what he called "activist judges" who have struck down laws restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman in the states of Washington, California, Maryland, New York and Nebraska.
The passage of a constitutional amendment is unlikely because it must garner two-thirds majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives -- where Bush's Republican party lacks the votes needed to win its approval -- and then win passage from three-fourths of the 50 US states.
But with Bush's approval ratings at dismal levels, political experts say Republicans need to muster as many of their conservative faithful as possible to prevent a potential loss of control of Congress in November elections.
The issue divides US society, but also the highest ranks of the Republican party.
The lesbian daughter of US Vice President Dick Cheney has criticized the amendment as "discrimination".
Talking to Fox News Sunday last month, Mary Cheney, 37, said it was "a bad piece of legislation".
"I think that is what the federal marriage amendment is, it is writing discrimination into the constitution.
"It is writing discrimination into the constitution and, as I say, it is fundamentally wrong," the vice president's daughter said.
Conservative Christian groups are opposed to any recognition of gay relationships, and one group, The American Family Association, has boycotted the Ford Motor Company over its support of homosexual groups and advertising in gay publications.
But some gay activists say their relationships have become more accepted across America, pointing to the three Oscar awards won by the gay cowboy love story "Brokeback Mountain."
Copyright © 2006 AFP