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Thursday, June 16, 2011

G.O.P. Senators Are Stalled in Talks on Marriage Bill

ALBANY — Anguished Senate Republicans held a four-hour meeting on Wednesday at which they were unable to decide even whether they would bring same-sex marriage to a vote, stalling a last-minute drive by supporters of the legislation.
The long-debated marriage measure, which has overshadowed all other issues in the final days of this legislative session, remained one vote shy of the number they needed for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate. The Democratic-controlled Assembly approved the legislation late Wednesday, by a vote of 80 to 63, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is a strong supporter.
Dean G. Skelos, the Senate majority leader, emerged from his caucus’s meeting on Wednesday afternoon to say that Republicans had not decided how to proceed on the marriage bill, but would continue discussions on Thursday.
“We haven’t resolved anything other than that we’re going to continue our conference,” said Mr. Skelos, a Long Island Republican.
The marriage issue, which had languished here for much of the legislative session, seemed to gain momentum early this week, as two Republican senators, James S. Alesi of Monroe County and Roy J. McDonald from the capital region, announced that they would join 29 of the 30 Senate Democrats in supporting same-sex marriage. And while gay-rights advocates believe a few other Republican senators are poised to support the marriage measure, none of the Republican lawmakers considered swayable on the issue announced a change of heart on Wednesday.
“Some of my colleagues are anguished,” Mr. McDonald said. “This is a cultural change. I think people struggle over the way they were raised, if they’re Catholic, if they’re Baptist, you know what I mean?”
Senator Greg Ball, a Hudson Valley Republican, said he did not believe the proposed legislation went far enough in protecting religious institutions, some of which, he said, would be vulnerable to lawsuits under Mr. Cuomo’s proposal.
“On the specific issue of marriage equality, with the possibility of serious and comprehensive religious protections, I will remain undecided until I see the final bill,” Mr. Ball said in a statement.
But Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, said no further changes were being contemplated by the governor or advocates.
“Senator Ball can decide to vote with the conservatives against the bill, but his characterization and description of the bill is just plain wrong,” Mr. Vlasto said. “Senator Ball is entitled to his own politics but not his own facts.”
Mr. Cuomo and other advocates have sought this week to flush wavering supporters into the open, in the process raising the political price for Senate Republicans of bottling the legislation up without a vote.
As the week began, three Democrats who had voted against the measure two years ago publicly announced they would support it, effectively depriving Republican lawmakers of any bipartisan cover for defeating or blocking the bill. Those Democrats were quickly followed by Mr. Alesi and Mr. McDonald, who are so far the only Republican lawmakers in the Senate to publicly back same-sex marriage.
If the measure does not pass now, Republicans could face political challenges on two fronts: an array of angry and well-financed gay-rights groups seeking to unseat Republican incumbents in the elections next year, and potential attacks or primary challenges against Mr. Alesi and Mr. McDonald from the right.
Andrew J. Lanza, a Staten Island Republican who has expressed uncertainty about the issue in recent days, said his colleagues had “talked about their innermost thoughts” during the private conference but insisted that the conversation had never become heated.
Mr. Lanza would not say if he thought same-sex marriage would come to a vote, instead repeating several times that he was proud to be part of the Republican caucus in the Senate.
“There’s an ongoing discussion here,” Mr. Lanza said. “Speak to Leader Skelos.”
On Wednesday evening, lawmakers in the Assembly debated the legislation for the fourth time in five years. Some had rainbow flags alongside American flags on their desks; others quoted from the Bible.
One Republican assemblywoman, Nancy Calhoun of Orange County, said that if the marriage bill passed, it would be “a day when the state of New York and its constitution lost something.”
And Dov Hikind, a Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, waved a copy of the Hebrew Bible and invoked religious principle in arguing against the measure.
“You want to tell God he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?” Mr. Hikind said.
But other lawmakers spoke of friends and family members who had struggled with discrimination or had pleaded with them to push for the bill’s passage. Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, noted that many once believed the Bible had instructed them to practice polygamy.
“Today, adhering to that commandment would be a criminal act,” Mr. Gottfried said.

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