The Bush administration, under pressure from conservatives to mount a strong defense of traditional families, plans to spend at least $1.5 billion to promote "healthy marriages," a newspaper reports.
The New York Times, in Wednesday's editions, says the White House is considering whether President Bush should unveil the plan in his State of the Union speech next week.
An adviser tells the newspaper: "This is a way for the president to address the concerns of conservatives and to solidify his conservative base."
In the wake of a Massachusetts court ruling that could pave the way to gay marriages, The Times also says conservative groups are asking the administration to press for a constitutional amendment barring marriages between people of the same sex. Mr. Bush has said he would support such an amendment "if necessary."
Data from a recent CBS News/New York Times poll suggest the president faces little risk of political fallout as a result of his proposed marriage initiative. In fact, many Americans would go even further. Six in ten oppose a law legalizing gay marriage, and 55 percent favor a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a women.
Much statistical evidence suggests children of married parents are more financially secure and emotionally healthy. Democrats as well as Republicans have supported efforts to increase marriage among low-income people, including the 1996 welfare reform law and moves to eliminate a so-called "marriage penalty" from the federal tax code.
However, some women's groups worry that marriage promotion will entice poor women to marry abusers.
"Such programs intrude on personal privacy, may ignore the risk of domestic violence and may coerce women to marry," Timothy J. Casey, a lawyer at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, told The Times.
But administration officials insist no one will be forced to marry under the program. Wade F. Horn, a Health and Human Services official, said: "The last thing we'd want is to increase the rate of domestic violence against women."
Mr. Bush, who bills himself a "compassionate conservative," has often spoken of the importance of marriage.
In 2002, the president proposed a Healthy Marriages program that made more funding available to the states, which now administer the federal welfare program, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The president's proposal made marriage a goal of the TANF program and require that states detail their efforts promote marriage when they apply for TANF funds.
Declaring Marriage Protection Week in October, the president called marriage "a sacred institution" whose "protection is essential to the continued strength of our society."
In his budget for the current fiscal year, the president called for $20 million to "promote responsible fatherhood and marriage."
According to The Times, the House has approved funding for marriage promotion, but the funding has stalled in the Senate. However, the Bush administration has already retained experts to help states and private groups develop marriage promotion plans.
Under the new program being contemplated, federal money could go towards advertising, instruction and mentoring for couples.
But The Times notes that under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, none of that money could go to gay couples.
The president has never wavered from defining marriage as a purely heterosexual institution.
"Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman," Mr. Bush said in a statement in November.
In a December CBS News/New York Times poll, 61 percent of Americans opposed a law allowing homosexual couples to marry, while 34 percent favored it. The number of Americans who oppose gay marriage has grown in recent months; in July, before the recent Massachusetts court ruling on the subject, 55 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while four in ten supported it.
The president can certainly count on Republicans to support this initiative (71 percent oppose homosexual marriage), but he might also find support from an unexpected source – a majority of Democrats (57 percent) oppose gay marriage, too. Fifty eight percent of Independents also oppose it.
As for the Republicans' conservative base of white evangelicals, 83 percent of them oppose gay marriage.
There have been other marriage-related initiatives in the past. Repealing the marriage penalty in the income tax laws had strong support before that was adopted. Most voters themselves are married. But there are party and other differences. Republicans are more likely to be married than Democrats or Independents; in the December poll, 65 percent of Republicans were married. Moderates and conservatives are also more apt than liberals to be married. Not surprisingly, those aged 18 to 29 are least likely to be married.
There are sizable racial differences, too. Less than half the African-Americans interviewed in December (46 percent) were married, compared with 60 percent of whites. But there were indications that even among this group there was support for traditional marriage: 75 percent of them opposed gay marriage.