SEN. RICK Santorum said he's not a hater, he's a lover. A lover of traditional marriage. Which is why, as all lovers do, he was looking for the sweet spot.

Or, more precisely, the exact words that would have imposed a federal definition of marriage on the states, thereby overriding 50 pesky state constitutions, legislatures and judiciaries.

But, as many lovers discover, finding that sweet spot can be tricky. And while Santorum, Bill Frist and the Alliance for Marriage keep digging around, aiming for that little "Eureka!", their Federal Marriage Amendment is - as of Wednesday - going nowhere.

Far from the 67 votes they needed to pass the measure, it didn't even reach a simple Senate majority of 51 in the vote to shut off debate and take a real vote. It lost big-time, and the amendment has been put away.

Why? Unfortunately for those behind it, the current language (illustrated on a chart at, would permanently prevent the 1,400 state and federal financial and legal benefits of marriage from being conferred on anyone but one man and one woman.

That's a lot further than even many Republicans want to go.

Instead of pushing the Democrats into a corner by forcing them to take a stand on the issue, the conservative Republicans have managed to back themselves, and President Bush, against the wall. And without an agreement even among Republicans on language, the Democrats had a chance to shine some light on the motives behind the timing of the vote, and more important, the rationale for the amendment itself.

That's bad for lover Rick. While most Americans don't support the idea of gay marriage yet, they're OK with civil unions for same-sex couples. The GOP leadership seemed to have missed that detail until right about now.

The Alliance for Marriage claims, on its site, that under the language of the amendment, civil unions, domestic partnerships and the "benefits associated with marriage" would be up to the states.

But what about the actual words of the amendment? "Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman." Oops.

Conservative voices as diverse as columnists Jonah Goldberg and David Brooks explain why the Republicans will continue to have a hard time rounding up the troops. Goldberg says that one of the reasons he favors civil unions is that "I believe they would forestall gay marriage while at the same time doing right by gays and society on a host of public policy issues. "

Brooks goes even further. "We shouldn't just allow gay marriage," says Brooks.

"We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity. "

Aiming already for a positive spin, Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, argues that the "sweet spot" Santorum is looking for is a moving target, and that's OK.

"This debate preceded the elections; it will last after the elections," he says. I bet he thinks that conservatives will be making hay on this issue by rolling it out in the middle of close elections for years to come.

He's right that the sweet spot of consensus over same-sex relationships will take time to define. But all indications show that as each succeeding generation comes of voting age, the consensus will be more and more in favor of full marriage rights and benefits to same sex couples.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation, like racial and gender discrimination before it, will die a slow, but inevitable welcome death.

And for the hundreds of thousands of couples now making do without state, federal and corporate benefits, such moment will be sweet . . . if long overdue. *

Flavia Colgan is an MSNBC commentator. E-mail