WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate wades into an election-year debate Friday over whether to write into the Constitution that ``marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.''
Its strongest proponents say a constitutional amendment is the only way to prevent federal courts from hearing cases that challenge a federal law disallowing same-sex unions. With such an amendment, they say, a court wouldn't be able to rule that gay marriage is legal.
``Some would define this as the ultimate culture battle,'' said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas.
Many Democrats say the debate is a political diversion orchestrated for the weeks running up to the presidential nominating conventions.
``It's all about politics, folks. Let's face it,'' said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. ``We're going to go on to gay marriage before the Democratic convention so some people can cast a vote that might hurt them in their election. Shame on us.''
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., urged senators to begin informal debate on the legislation Friday, and said debate would continue Monday and Tuesday with a goal of voting Wednesday.
Senators fighting for the constitutional amendment would have to secure a two-thirds vote _ 67 of the Senate's 100 members _ to approve it. Some supporters questioned Thursday whether they had even the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
``We're going to have to see how that vote comes out,'' said Sen. Wayne Allard, the Colorado Republican who drafted the proposed amendment.
The Senate's GOP leaders brought a prominent black conservative, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, to discuss constitutional and cultural aspects of the issue with Republican senators.
Blackwell said he also delivered a political message: ``You're not at risk of political defeat if you hold your ground.''
Several Republican senators have said they're wary of amending the Constitution, the nation's two-centuries-old founding document, before exhausting all other avenues.
And some senators, Republican and Democratic, simply oppose the idea.
``Nuts,'' said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I. ``To be seen as the party that's coming between two people that love each other doing what they want to do ... to me that's going to be seen as a liability, politically.''