by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
When Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announced her support for marriage equality last week, the debate over whether or not there would be enough votes in the state Senate to pass a Gay marriage bill this legislative session began immediately. After all, openly Gay Senator Ed Murray has warned for some time now that although there were enough votes in the House, it was the state Senate where votes were falling short. It would seem that all that has changed and the pendulum is shifting. Seattle Gay News has learned that, just four days into the session, the Legislature is on the verge of having enough support to approve marriage equality.
The Associated Press announced January 11 that after reaching out to 49 state senators over the past week, they found more lawmakers resolutely supporting same-sex marriage than opposing it by a margin of 21-18 - just four votes short of the 25 the measure needs to pass the Senate.
When the statewide marriage equality organization Washington United for Marriage was formed in November 2011, Murray told members of the community gathered at a Seattle town hall meeting November 23 that passage of a Gay marriage bill would not be possible without the support of a few Republicans. This week, Murray got that support.
On January 9, State Senator Steve Litzow announced he would be the first Republican in the Senate to support Gay marriage.
'I'm a traditional Republican,' Litzow, a freshman lawmaker from Mercer Island, told The Seattle Times' editorial board. 'When you think about Gay marriage, it's the right thing to do and it's very consistent with the tenets of being a Republican - such as individual freedom and personal responsibility.'
Then, on January 10, state Senator Cheryl Pflug became the second Republican to say she will support Gay marriage legislation to give same-sex couples the full rights and benefits of marriage.
'I have been a longtime supporter of human equality,' said Pflug, a lawmaker from Maple Valley who has voted for domestic-partnership benefits twice before. 'I do not feel diminished by having another human being experience the same freedom I am entitled to exercise. I would feel diminished by denying another human the ability to exercise those same rights and freedoms.'
Both Litzow and Pflug support the legislation without a public vote.
Two first-term Republican senators, Joe Fain of Auburn and Andy Hill of Redmond, have declined to say whether or not they would officially support the bill, but left open the possibility of doing so after they discuss the issue with constituents.
It may be hard to believe that there are Democratic officials who do not support Gay marriage in Washington, but there are. In fact, it is because of those individuals that we need to rely on Republican votes in order to see the passage of a Gay marriage bill in the Senate.
Perhaps the most talked-about Democrat not willing to support full marriage equality is Senator Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island. She says she is not willing to support anything that doesn't allow a vote of the people - and even then she would not commit whether she would vote for a referendum.
According to the Associated Press, there are only two Democrats among the 18 declared 'no' votes on the Gay marriage proposal. Senator Tim Sheldon of Potlatch joins Haugen on that list.
'I'm not on board with it, and I don't think my constituents are,' Sheldon said immediately following Gregoire's announcement that she would support a Gay marriage bill.
There remain some undecided Democrats, as well. It has been reported that senators Karen Fraser of Olympia and Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell signaled support, but were unwilling to commit.
Senators Brian Hatfield of Raymond, Jim Kastama of Puyallup, and Paull Shin of Edmonds opposed domestic partnerships just a few years ago, but all three have said they would consider supporting Gay marriage.
NO VICTORY YET
As far as the battle over same-sex marriage is concerned, it was a good week for the LGBT community and lawmakers who saw some ground gained in Olympia. Still, Murray remains vigilant.
Murray told the Associated Press that he is '50% optimistic' a same-sex marriage bill would pass.
'I can't declare victory,' he said. 'I don't think we'll know we have the votes until we actually vote.'
Murray, who has spent years leading efforts to approve same-sex marriage and other pro-LGBT legislation in Olympia, noted that he saw a Gay civil rights measure he spearheaded lose by one vote in 2005 before it passed by a single vote the following year.
As for rounding up the votes from the undecided lawmakers, Murray acknowledges that each of them he had spoken to 'has a very difficult personal struggle.'
'This isn't a policy debate or something you can trade a vote for,' he said. 'It's such a personal decision.'
Perhaps it is undecided Democratic Senator Brian Hatfield who summed it up best this week. He described himself as being simply 'torn' by the debate and backlash that is almost guaranteed to come no matter what his decision is.
'The supporters of the bill determine you're a hateful bigot if you vote no, while the opponents question your faith and say you're turning your back on God if you vote yes,' he said.
We'll find out soon enough. The legislative session is scheduled to end in a little over 50 days.
If a same-sex marriage bill is approved by the Legislature, Washington would become the seventh state in the country to legalize Gay marriage.
At this time, six states plus the District of Columbia recognize marriage for same-sex couples under state law: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. Nine states - California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington - provide same-sex couples with access to the state-level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either civil unions or domestic partnerships. Same-sex couples do not receive federal rights or benefits in any state.
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