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Lawmakers backing gay marriage poll colleagues

With a consensus on gay marriage still eluding Beacon Hill, legislators who back same sex-marriage are polling colleagues in search of support for their efforts to block a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban it.

On Monday, a dozen or so lawmakers -- all of whom back the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage -- met privately at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters next to the State House to devise a questionnaire to determine the mood of the Legislature before it reconvenes a constitutional convention next week.

Strategists at the meeting said the legislators developed questions that will gauge how much support they will have if they continue to try to defeat the various initiatives to ban gay marriage. They particularly want to know how strongly each member feels about holding the line against the amendments, including voting to adjourn without a decision.

Gay marriage advocates are facing a difficult decision as the convention approaches: Go for broke and try to defeat all measures that define marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, even if the measures contain provisions to create civil unions for gay couples; or accept a compromise that has both a gay marriage ban and a civil union mandate. A chaotic two-day session on Feb. 11 and 12 ended in a deadlock, with various initiatives failing to gain a majority.

Separately, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini said yesterday that a compromise amendment -- which fell seven votes short earlier this month -- still does not have majority support, but he predicted it would by the time of the convention.

"There are conversations underway that give me some degree of confidence that in the end we can reach consensus," Travaglini, a Democrat from Boston, told reporters after addressing the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce.

Travaglini, who chairs the constitutional convention, hinted yesterday he is prepared to bring the process to a halt if the House and Senate members are still deadlocked after next week's session, so that lawmakers can turn to other business.

"If there is . . . realization that we're not going to be able to bring or reach consensus in a timely way then I'm going to have to give some serious thought to, you know, the budget process that the clock is already ticking on and is underway," Travaglini said.

In recent weeks, opponents of same-sex marriage have said they detected a shift in opinion among lawmakers and the general public toward the argument that voters should have a chance to decide the issue in a ballot initiative. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran told the Globe last week that he sees a "gathering consensus" for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and create civil unions.

A Globe survey of Massachusetts residents two weeks ago found 71 percent felt voters -- not legislators or the courts -- should have a final say in defining marriage. The poll also found 53 percent of respondents opposed gay marriage, but 60 percent supported civil unions.

Some lawmakers argue that if a gay-marriage ban with a civil union provision reaches the 2006 ballot, social conservative groups will not spend huge amounts of money to win its approval because they oppose civil unions.

However, Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said that her group rejects the arguments by some gay marriage advocates to allow an anti-gay marriage amendment with civil unions on the ballot.

"There [are] those who assert that our opposition so strongly opposes putting civil unions in the constitution that they wouldn't support the Travaglini proposal if it went to the ballot," she said. "However, we are crystal clear about our position. We do not want any amendment taking away our marriage rights to go to the ballot."

As for the lawmakers trying to assess the support in the Legislature, she said she welcomes the survey. "They are doing the right thing by polling to help our lobbying effort," she said. "We couldn't do it without them."

Without a well-funded campaign to pass the measure, some advocates of gay marriage feel it would be defeated, particularly as voters got used the concept of gay marriage, a process that will take place between May 17, when the SJC ruling takes effect, and the 2006 election.

One Democratic legislative leader who has been in the middle of the negotiations said his colleagues are "really burned out" over the gay-marriage issue and want to end the debate as soon as possible. "They are feeling the cross pressures," the lawmaker said.

Globe correspondent Matthew Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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