WASHINGTON -- A conservative push to ban gay marriage through a constitutional amendment gained renewed momentum Wednesday after a Senate panel led by Kansas Republican Sam Brownback narrowly approved the measure.
The ''Marriage Protection Amendment" would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, effectively rescinding the Massachusetts law that made gay marriage legal last year.
''None of us takes amending the Constitution lightly," said Brownback, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. ''The plain fact is this amendment has been exhaustively studied and it really is time to act."
While a similar effort led by President Bush failed in both chambers of Congress last year, conservative lawmakers are pushing for another vote to head off any decision in the federal courts that could legalize gay marriage.
In a 5-4 vote along party lines, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., cast the deciding vote allowing the amendment to pass to the full Judiciary Committee and a likely vote in the Senate next year. Specter said he opposes the amendment but feels it shouldn't ''be bottled up" in committee.
The measure would need to be approved by two-thirds of those voting in the House and Senate and then be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures.
Using an argument often made by Republicans, Democrats on the panel said the amendment would trample decisions that should be left to the states. Nineteen states have already passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, with Texas voters being the latest to take that step on Tuesday.
Voters in five other states will consider similar constitutional amendments next year.
''No one can say in good faith that states are not wrestling with the issue in exactly the way domestic relations laws have been historically addressed in this country," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., ranking Democrat on the panel, called the measure ''an extreme and unnecessary reaction" that has little chance of passing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., accused those pushing the amendment of harboring a political agenda.
Brownback, who is weighing a presidential bid, denied any political motives.