Conflicting interests and political maneuvering threatened to stall a vote in New York on whether to legalize gay marriage, viewed by advocates and opponents alike as a pivotal moment in the years-long debate.
The Republican leader of the state Senate, which controls the fate of the measure, emerged from yet another closed-door meeting Thursday morning with no plan to bring the issue to a vote. Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, gave the brief update after meeting with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of same-sex marriage.
Another Republican, Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn, said the collapse of a deal to extend New York City rent control regulations late Wednesday night was linked to the slowdown in discussions over gay marriage. Golden said he still expects the marriage bill to come to a vote, but that may not happen this week. It had been expected as early as Thursday.
Bloomberg, a major financial backer of the Senate Republicans, declined immediate comment after meeting with the senators for an hour.
The legalization of gay marriage in New York now falls squarely on the shoulders of Republican state senators under intense political pressure from the important Conservative Party and internal polling that shows growing, but not necessarily majority, support for same-sex marriage.
They know that not just the national gay marriage movement, but their own careers, may hinge on their vote.
But before that vote can happen, the Republicans will return to a closed-door caucus to decide whether to send Gov. Andrew Cuomo's bill to the Senate floor. The vote on the bill appears to be a tie, with at least two Republicans saying they are undecided.
Approval of the measure late Wednesday night by the Democrat-led Assembly only compounded the political pressure as national advocates camp out in Albany for the vote they hope will put the gay marriage campaign back on track in other states. The legislative session is scheduled to end Monday.
"The vote by the state Assembly has moved New York one step closer to making marriage equality a reality," Cuomo said after the 9:15 p.m. vote. "I applaud these legislators' prompt and courageous support on this measure, which will finally allow same-sex couples the freedom to marry and provide them with hundreds of rights that others take for granted."
It was the third time the Assembly dominated by New York City Democrats passed a gay marriage bill in recent years.
"I was discriminated against as a woman, a Jew, and as a lesbian ... and it was equally wrong in all instances," said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan.
She said she and her partner have been denied numerous legal rights, and that it has been emotionally painful, while also costing her tens of thousands of dollars because they weren't legally married.
Several Republicans and some Democrats said their religious convictions prohibit them from supporting gay marriage.
"What we are doing today is not right," said Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, a Republican representing Orange and Rockland counties. "We are changing the institution of marriage ... this is a day I will remember as a day when the state of New York and its constitution lost something, and I'm very sorry that is about to happen."
"If you want to believe in a book and that God tells you what to think, knock yourself out," said Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, the bill's sponsor in the Assembly and brother of entertainer Rosie O'Donnell. "But do not throw that book in my face."
"This is about equality," he said, noting some of his colleagues had been married "two or three times" while he can't.
While the Assembly passed the bill by a closer than expected 80-63 margin, it was some solace to advocates who had hoped for a quick approval. Cuomo had sent a "message of necessity" order that would have allowed the Assembly and Senate to pass the bill into law as early as Wednesday, rather than waiting three days for public review.
In the Senate, Republican senators wouldn't say much about their discussion in a four-hour meeting behind closed doors on Wednesday. But those who did said their concerns about protecting religious groups through so-called "carve-outs" haven't been satisfied.
"The carve-outs were minimal and there is still a real need for serious, comprehensive religious carve-outs," said Republican Sen. Greg Ball, who represents Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties.
Cuomo's bill already protects clergy and religious groups from having to participate in gay marriages. But Ball's proposed exceptions would also protect individuals, businesses and nonprofit groups opposed to gay marriage from being charged with discrimination for refusing to provide their property or services to be used in a same-sex wedding.
"No one wants to be in the position where we shut down Catholic adoption agencies or religious organizations and the governor has got to, in my opinion, pay real attention to that possibility," Ball said.
No such negotiations appear under way.
The bill is similar to the one defeated in 2009 in an effort led by Senate Republicans and some Democrats, dealing a blow to the national legalization movement.
"I think one of the hallmark principles of our country is respect for faiths, for religion in this country," said Rep. Sen. Andrew Lanza of Staten Island. "I think there are issues outstanding in this legislation with respect to that issue."
An unofficial head count leaves the issue at a 31-31 tie in the Senate, where Republicans have a 32-30 majority. Republican Sen. Roy McDonald of Saratoga and Rensselaer counties and James Alesi of Monroe County said this week they would support gay marriage, after voting against it in 2009.
Twenty-nine of 30 Democratic senators also committed to the measure and at least two Republican senators — Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie and Mark Grisanti of Erie and Niagara counties — say they are undecided.
A tie in the 62-seat Senate would be a defeat, and some advocates, including Cuomo, have said they don't want the measure brought to the floor only to see it lose again. Democrats, however, could test the power of the lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy of Rochester, to break a tie. But that rule is vague, saying it can only be used for "procedural" votes, and would likely be challenged in the courts.
Veteran GOP Sen. Hugh Farley of Schenectady County opposes gay marriage but says the caucus meeting is open to senators supporting the bill.
"I have to do what I think is right, and they have to do what they think is right," Farley said after the unusually lengthy caucus Wednesday.
"It's going to be a tight one, it's going to be close," said the Rev. Duane Motley, a leader of a conservative Christian group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, lobbying against same-sex marriage.