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State-by-state skirmishes over prospective marriage rights for lesbians and gay men escalated into a national battle Wednesday with the introduction in Congress of bills that would deny federal recognition of same-sex marriages if they were ever legalized.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., would also absolve states of the obligation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.That gets to the heart of conservatives' concern that if Hawaii sanctions same-sex marriage in the next few years - which is considered a possibility because of a pending court case there that focuses on domestic partnerships - gay couples from around the nation would fly to the islands to be wed legally and then return to their home states to claim the benefits of civil marriage.

"If some state wishes to recognize same-sex marriage, they can do so," Nickles said Wednesday before introducing the measure, known as the Defense of Marriage Act. But he said the bill would en-sure that "the 49 other states don't have to and the federal government does not have to."

Barr emphasized that the bill "does not outlaw" same-sex unions. But by withholding federal tax, welfare, pension, health, immigration and survivors' benefits, the bill would deny gay couples many of the civil advantages of marriage, relegating such unions to a lesser "domestic partnership" status.

Critics of the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress could not simply skirt Article 4 of the Constitution, which says that "full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state."One opponent, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., said: "You can't amend the Constitution with a statute. Everybody knows that. This is just stirring the political waters and seeing what hate you can unleash."

But Barr said that Article 4 allowed Congress to prescribe "the effect" of the "full faith and credit" clause and that the article had never been interpreted as forcing one state to violate its own public policy in accommodating the laws of another. "Clearly, Congress has the jurisdiction to do what we're doing," he said.

Barr said he expected that the bill would move "very quickly" through the Judiciary Committee to the House floor for a vote. He said he anticipated strong bipartisan support, noting that the bill had two Democratic co-sponsors, Reps. Ike Skelton and Harold Volkmer, both of Missouri.

President Clinton is "against same-sex marriage," his senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, said Wednesday, but he could not say whether Clinton would sign the bill, since he has not seen it.