WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday he was "absolutely comfortable" with allowing same-sex couples to marry, staking out a position on a hot-button social issue that appeared to differ from that of his boss, President Barack Obama.
In an interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Biden was pressed on whether the Obama administration would seek to legalize gay marriage in a second White House term. He said he personally was open to the change.
"The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties," Biden said.
Obama has said he favors civil unions but has stopped short of endorsing gay marriage. However, Obama has also said his views on the issue were evolving.
An endorsement of gay marriage could help energize core Democratic supporters ahead of the November election but it could also run the risk of alienating some independent voters who hold more conservative views on social issues.
Senior Obama campaign aide David Axelrod sought to play down any differences between Biden and the president, writing on Twitter that Biden was saying that "all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights."
Axelrod said that was "precisely" Obama's position.
A Biden spokesperson said that the vice president "was expressing that he too is evolving on the issue, after meeting so many committed couples and families in this country."
"The vice president was saying what the president has said previously - that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans, and that we oppose any effort to rollback those rights," the spokesperson added.
Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said in a statement that he was "encouraged" by Biden's comments.
But Solomonese added, "Now is the time for President Obama to speak out for full marriage equality for same-sex couples."
In the wide-ranging NBC interview, Biden also said the United States was ready to give blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng a visa "right away."
The vice president, who has been a main point of contact with China for the Obama administration, said the United States expected China to stick to its commitment to let Chen go abroad and take up a fellowship at New York University.
"I think his future is in America," Biden said. "He has an opportunity to go to NYU ... and we're prepared to give (him) a visa right away. He's going to be able to take his family."
Biden also dismissed rumors that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may take his place as vice president on the 2012 Democratic ticket, saying: "There's no way out. I mean, they've already printed Obama-Biden."
Weighing in on speculation that the former first lady and onetime Obama rival might run for the White House again 2016, Biden joked: "I think we may run as a team."
"I don't know whether I'm going to run. And Hillary doesn't know whether she's going to run," he said.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Stacey Joyce