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In NY, same-sex marriage bill hangs in balance

Same-sex marriage supporters on the steps of City

Same-sex marriage supporters on the steps of City Hall, in Portland, Maine, on Nov. 4, 2009, a day after voters rejected the gay marriage law. Credit: AP

ALBANY - The fate of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage is increasingly unclear as nervous state senators eye the 2010 elections with last week's setbacks for gay rights in Maine and a New York House race still fresh in their minds.

In advance of Tuesday's possible vote, advocates on both sides have focused on Republicans because the Democratic majority can only muster 25 to 29 of the 32 votes required for bill adoption in the Senate. Gay marriage comfortably passed the Assembly in May.

Moderates within the Senate GOP are wary of taking a stand after conservatives used Republican Assemb. Dierdre Scozzafava's support of same-sex marriage to drive her from the 23rd U.S. House race. Conservative support for Republicans will be crucial next year when the GOP hopes to pick up two Senate seats to regain the majority it lost in January for the first time in 43 years.

Of Long Island's nine senators only Democrat Craig Johnson of Port Washington backs unions between two men or two women. Six Republicans are opposed, while Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) and Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point) are on the fence, a Newsday survey found.

Minority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre has released Republicans to vote their "conscience," forgoing the party's usual bloc voting. He, however, opposes the bill, saying, "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman."

Craig Johnson disagreed, saying, "It's wrong to deny the benefits and burdens of marriage to a segment of the population merely because of sexuality. This is about fairness."

He and others have been pushing Senate Democratic chief John Sampson to put the measure on the floor for a vote. But Sampson was noncommittal after Gov. David A. Paterson included gay marriage on Tuesday's agenda for the special session called to close a $3.2-billion budget deficit.

"When we bring it to the floor, we would like to have 32 [votes] for it to pass," said Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran.

Gay rights groups are frustrated. Their hefty campaign contributions in 2008 helped put Democrats in charge. But Senate President Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) reportedly agreed in December to shelve the marriage bill if Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) backed him in a struggle over Senate leadership. In June, Smith was ousted by a GOP-led coup that produced a month of gridlock before Democrats regained control led by Sampson.

"We now expect that we will get the respectful debate and vote that we've been waiting for since June," said Alan Van Capelle, director of Empire State Pride Agenda.

Activists are cautiously optimistic that wavering senators will be won over by impassioned rhetoric from Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan), the only openly gay senator, and by wanting to be on the winning side.

Duane said, "I strongly believe that my colleagues from both sides of the aisle will step up and do the right thing."

Opponents are working to scuttle a vote. Their arguments were bolstered last week when voters in Maine overturned a law enacted in May.

Maine became the 31st state to reject gay marriage at the ballot box. Five states have legalized gay and lesbian unions, but only Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont adopted legislation.

"In light of what happened in Maine and New York 23 [House race], upstate Democrats and moderate Republicans in suburbs like Long Island can't afford to risk voting on something as controversial as same-sex marriage," said Jason J. McGuire of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which opposes the bill. "Neither party wants their guys on the record when they all have to run next year."

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