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Senate boss plans to delay gay marriage vote

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / February 10, 2005

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Fearing the contentious issue might become a distraction, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini plans to delay a vote on gay marriage until as late as the fall to allow the Legislature time to focus on a busy agenda that includes health care, the budget, and job creation, senior legislative sources said yesterday.

Travaglini's decision has not been made public, but those familiar with his thinking say the Senate leader wants to give the newly reorganized House leadership time to focus on the budget and other measures before he calls a constitutional convention on the proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriages and allow same-sex civil unions.

Senate minority leader Brian P. Lees, an East Longmeadow Republican, confirmed yesterday that Travaglini had decided to delay the convention. A second Senate source also said Travaglini plans to wait until the fall. The Senate president is the presiding officer over the constitutional convention.

''In informal discussions with the Senate president, we both agree there are a number of other items of importance that should be discussed on the Senate floor before we get to this issue," said Lees. ''It could come up as late as fall."

It is not certain what impact Travaglini's decision to delay the convention until the fall will have on the outcome of the lawmakers' final vote on the proposed constitutional amendment. Those involved in the battle on both sides said the delay could benefit gay- marriage supporters, giving them more time to marshal their forces to kill the amendment.

The proposed change in the state constitution would ban gay marriage but create a civil-union system for same-sex couples, giving them the full benefits and privileges of marriage. Last May, Massachusetts became the only state in the nation to legally perform same-sex marriages.

Last year's tension-gripped battle over gay marriage stirred up strong passions and emotions among the lawmakers. The fight, which drew national and international attention, all but halted any serious work in the Legislature and drained much of the energy out of Beacon Hill. Some gay-marriage advocates have lobbied Travaglini to block any further vote on the proposed amendment in this legislative session, a move that would kill it, but he has ruled out that option.

''He said there will definitely be a vote," said one leading gay-marriage lobbyist.

The Legislature voted 105-92 last year for the amendment, which is sponsored by Travaglini and Lees. It must clear the Legislature once more before it could be placed on the ballot in November 2006. A University of Massachusetts at Lowell poll released this week found that 53 percent of Massachusetts voters surveyed said they wanted the proposal on the ballot.

Supporters of the amendment banning gay marriage need 101 votes to pass it and send it to the ballot. A Globe analysis last month, taking into consideration the fall election results and the recent resignation of three legislators who opposed same-sex marriages, indicated that supporters of gay marriage appear to be gaining ground.

''We still don't have the votes and we are still far from having the votes," Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said yesterday. ''We also have not geared up fully. We fully expect a huge battle from the other side. It won't be an easy vote at all."

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, also said he thinks the outcome is far from certain. ''It is a very close call," he said.

Both sides said that one key element will be the outcome of the elections this spring to fill three vacant legislative seats. All three were vacated by lawmakers who voted for the gay marriage ban. The districts -- in Mattapan, Brighton, and Pittsfield -- have quickly become a flashpoint in the same-sex marriage battle.

Furthermore, a number of legislators who voted for the amendment last year have indicated they will change their votes when it comes up again at a convention, or are seriously considering switching positions. Even Lees has publicly ruminated about voting against the amendment he is cosponsoring.

However, eight social conservatives, many of them Republicans, who oppose the proposed amendment because it would create a same-sex civil-union system, may face pressure to back the amendment. But so far, that bloc shows no signs of switching. Mineau said his group is still trying to assess what strategy to recommend to its supporters in the Legislature.

Aides to Governor Mitt Romney say he will continue to work to win passage of the amendment.

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