Today, the U.S. Senate opened debate on a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and President Bush threw his support to the measure in an appearance at the White House. But the amendment is given little chance to pass, and NPR's David Greene reports that the White House event was low profile.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Rarely does the White House work so hard to play down a presidential event. Reporters asked why the president was speaking publicly about gay marriage today. Had he made a decision to get more aggressive on the issue? Was he going to start lobbying lawmakers more actively? The answer was that reporters were really making much ado about a routine event, and that the president was simply getting together with people who share his views on marriage. The White House held the event, not in the ornate East Room or in the Rose Garden, but in an auditorium across a driveway from the West Wing. Once inside, the event felt like a pep rally.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Judges, Mr. Bush said, have forced his hand. In too many states, courts have thwarted the will of the people on banning same-sex marriages. The president said he believes states should decide the issue, but that courts were making that impossible. He was speaking to religious leaders and conservative groups, who interrupted his ten-minute speech ten times to applaud him. At other points, they quietly nodded in agreement as he spoke.

President BUSH: For ages, in every culture, human beings have understood that marriage is critical to the well being of families. And because families pass along values and shape character, marriage is also critical to the health of society. Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them. And changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure.

GREENE: Just afterwards down Pennsylvania Avenue, senators began debating the amendment. Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he didn't know why.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Minority Leader): What's the U.S. Senate going to debate this week? A new energy policy? No. Will we debate the raging war in Iraq? Will we address our staggering national debt? No. Will we address the serious…

GREENE: What they would debate and vote on, he said, was an amendment that - on the face of it - stands little chance of passing. Some Republicans felt that just putting the Senate on record was enough for them. It's a strategy that Reid objected to.

Senator REID: This is another one of the president's efforts to frighten, to distort, to distract, and confuse America. It is this administration's way of avoiding the tough, the real problems that American citizens are confronted with each and every day.

GREENE: Reid said he agrees with the President that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but that this should not involve a constitutional amendment. Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin went further. He said Mr. Bush was trying to right discrimination into our constitution.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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