OLYMPIA — With gay-marriage legislation only one vote short of approval in the state Senate, pressure is building on five uncommitted senators who will likely decide the issue.
A coalition of religious conservatives is lobbying lawmakers in Olympia to oppose same-sex marriage, while the National Organization for Marriage announced last week it would spend $250,000 in Washington state to help defeat any Republican who supports the bill.
On the other side, a well-funded campaign of religious, labor and community groups called Washington United for Marriage is working to amass public support. And several corporations, including Microsoft, have endorsed the legislation.
The uncommitted lawmakers are being inundated with calls, emails and lobbyist visits. The first hearings on the legislation, scheduled for Monday in the House and Senate, could heat matters up even more.
A town-hall meeting held by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, earlier this month opened a window into what some senators are facing.
The packed Whidbey Island meeting, caught on videotape and posted on the Internet, shows same-sex-marriage supporters booing and one calling Haugen a “racist” and a “homophobe” when she advocated sending the issue to voters.
“What we’re asking you to do is vote in favor of civil rights. Not what your district says,” one person in the audience told her.
Haugen has turned down requests for interviews and isn’t indicating how she’ll vote.
When Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, announced his support for the bill last week, he said he knows of childhood friends in his district “who will never forgive me for this vote.”
Aside from Haugen, state Sens. Andy Hill, R-Redmond; Joe Fain, R-Auburn; Paull Shin, D-Edmonds; and Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, are uncommitted, according to the lawmakers or members of their staffs.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has declined to comment, but records show he’s opposed every gay-rights bill that’s come up for a vote in the past.
The state House already has enough lawmakers in support of the measure to approve it. Gov. Chris Gregoire backs the bill, as well.
Big crowds expected
Big crowds are expected for the hearings on Monday.
Stand for Marriage Washington — a loosely organized coalition of conservative lawmakers, well-known evangelical pastors, the Tri-City Tea Party and the Constitution Party of Washington — predicts as many as 10,000 people will flood the Capitol for a noontime rally in opposition to gay marriage.
“We have to create among these legislators a belief that they will lose their jobs if they vote to redefine this law,” said Joseph Backholm, of Washington Family Policy Institute, a member of the coalition. “We have to convince them to be more afraid of us than of the other side.”
Six other states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. But unlike the battles in those places, the debate in Washington is not over providing gays and lesbians benefits such as hospital visitation rights and estate planning.
Over several years, gay-rights groups and state lawmakers have built upon a domestic-partnership law that now grants same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married people. In 2009 they successfully fought off Referendum 71, which sought to repeal the final installment of that law.
Now the only thing left to fight over is the right of gay and lesbian couples to be able to call their relationships marriage under state law.
That’s a challenge for the opposition, said Matt Baretto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington who conducts the Washington Poll.
Supporters of the gay-marriage bill will argue that Washington has a system of “separate but equal” when it comes to marriage, he said.
“We’ve tried separate but equal; it doesn’t work,” he said. “It will be difficult for the other side to overcome that.”
But the Rev. Joe Fuiten, pastor of the Cedar Park Church in Bothell, calls gay marriage “one of those lines-in-the-sand issues, and for Christians a clear line has been crossed here.”
Fuiten was not part of the Ref. 71 campaign to repeal the latest state domestic-partnership law, but he has joined this fight.
“They are changing the definition of the relationship that I have, not just granting an opportunity for homosexuals,” he said. “It’s not like anybody will be better off after this than before, though they will try to confuse it. All they can do is make the equality argument, but it really doesn’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny.”
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections, which will hold the Senate hearing, said he’s ready for a crowd.
In addition to the main hearing room, there will be two overflow rooms and the Senate galleries where people can watch the proceedings on television.
Favored in committees
Once the hearings are over, the bills could move out of committee by Thursday in the Senate and by Jan. 30 in the House. The chairmen of both committees said they have the votes they need. The House bill is also expected to go through the House Ways and Means Committee. It’s not clear if the Senate’s measure will go through Senate Ways and Means.
Gay-marriage advocates say the earliest the bills could get floor votes would be the first part of February.
Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of the bill in the House, worries about what could happen before a vote is taken.
For example, “We have a series of controversial issues that are going to be before the Legislature (including budget and tax votes), and legislators have a limited tolerance for taking controversial votes. So one thing that I worry about is what else is going on that interacts with the bill,” he said.
Still, Pedersen said, “I feel pretty good about where we are in the House.”
Meanwhile, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Ed Murray, D-Seattle, remains unsure he’ll get the one additional vote needed to pass the measure in that chamber.
In fact, Murray said there’s a good chance he’ll try to bring the bill up for a floor vote without knowing if he has the necessary 25 votes for passage.
And there’s no guarantee the bill will even make it to the floor for a vote.
For controversial bills, each procedural step toward a vote presents an opportunity for opponents to derail or at least stall the legislation, Murray said. Also, some lawmakers are expected to try to amend the bill to include a referendum clause requiring voters to decide whether the measure becomes law.
That could be a close vote, but Murray said he has enough support to keep such a clause from being approved.
In the end, though, voters may well determine whether Washington becomes the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Some of the same groups opposed to gay marriage are those that unsuccessfully tried to overturn the state’s domestic-partnership law with Ref. 71.
Gary Randall, president of the conservative Faith and Freedom Network, said there will be a challenge at the ballot if the Legislature legalizes same-sex marriage.
“It will be a different story than Referendum 71,” he said.
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