House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and others on his leadership team who support same-sex marriage are rounding up votes to derail a proposed ban on gay marriage scheduled to be discussed today in Constitutional Convention, sources said yesterday.
Legislative sources said that DiMasi is pushing to get enough votes to force today's convention to recess without taking final action on the amendment, a move that, if successful, would kill the proposal and prevent it from appearing on the 2008 state ballot.
Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, who will preside over the convention, said yesterday he would entertain a motion to recess or adjourn, even before a vote is taken on the marriage amendment. His comments appear to be a shift in his position from earlier this year, when he said he intended to make sure a recorded vote was taken on the amendment.
"Whatever action the body decides to do will be done by a recorded vote," Travaglini said in an interview yesterday, when asked about a motion to recess. "I will entertain that motion. I will not influence anyone how to vote."
Under the procedures to get a question on the ballot, supporters of the gay marriage ban need at least 50 of the state's 200 lawmakers to vote to approve the measure in two consecutive legislative sessions. Backers of the proposed ban said yesterday that they have close to 60 votes for today's Constitutional Convention.
Opponents of the proposed ban need 150 votes to block it, but DiMasi's strategy changes the equation. He would need to muster just 101 votes to recess, far fewer than the 150 he and other gay marriage supporters would need to kill the proposed ban. If the lawmakers recess before voting or if the measure fails to win 50 votes in this legislative session, the petition dies.
Gay marriage opponent Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, insisted that an effort by the lawmakers to close down the convention before voting on the proposal would violate the state constitution.
"His constitutional responsibility is to call for a vote on the amendment," Mineau said when told of Travaglini's comments. "He presides over the convention, and leadership is exhibited by making sure the duties of the convention are carried out."
Mineau predicted that Governor Mitt Romney, a strong opponent of same-sex marriage, would order the Legislature back into session. Yesterday, Romney issued a statement saying that "failure to vote is a violation of the oath of office we all take to uphold the constitution."
Governor-elect Deval L. Patrick, fresh from his landslide election victory, indicated yesterday that he had no intention of using his new political capital to influence the vote, although he won early campaign endorsements from gay activists. He said yesterday he has spoken against the proposed ban and will continue to do so, but declined to say whether he would do any more.
"We are not feeling optimistic," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a veteran Beacon Hill lobbyist on gay rights issues. "We are finding that the three quarters vote [or 150 lawmakers] we need to defeat this is very difficult to obtain."
The Constitutional Convention, delayed in May until after the fall elections, poses a challenge for advocates of same-sex marriage and their supporters in the Legislature, who are uncertain what strategy will work to block the amendment petition.
Some gay marriage proponents, including DiMasi, are advocating that lawmakers should support a motion to recess the convention until January. But many of those who oppose the ban argue that good-government values demand that the petition be given a fair hearing and vote before the Constitutional Convention, letting it advance or fail on its own merit.
That argument has frustrated many of those trying keep gay marriage legal in Massachusetts.
"In democracy, a majority is supposed to rule," Isaacson said. "We have a majority on our side; that should suffice. But it doesn't in this circumstance."
Asked if she and other advocates are pushing for a vote to adjourn or recess, Isaacson would only say: "We are focused on defeating the amendment."
Today's session marks another of many skirmishes over gay marriage in the last four years as opponents have struggled to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. In 2002, a similar proposal to the one before the lawmakers today was short-circuited when Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham adjourned the convention before a vote was taken.
Their efforts took on new energy in November 2003 when the Supreme Judicial Court, by a 4-to-3 vote, declared that any laws denying same-sex marriages would violate the state's Constitution and its equal-rights clause.