SPRINGFIELD – Hopes that Illinois could quickly become the 10th state in the nation to legalize gay marriage bogged down Thursday when the bill's Democratic supporters backed off plans to hold a full Senate vote on it and went home after cancelling a session scheduled for today.
Same-sex marriage advocates entered the lame-duck session Wednesday with high expectations of passing a bill by the assembly's Jan. 9 curtain. Backers were riding a wave of momentum from successes during the November elections as well as public encouragement from President Barack Obama.
After two days of encountering snags in trying to move the measure, Sen. Heather Steans finally won approval in a Senate committee Thursday evening with an 8-5 vote, which was met with cheers by gay marriage supporters.
But Democrats called off a full Senate vote after Steans said three backers – two Democrats and one Republican – weren't present, demonstrating how delicate and contentious the issue remains even in a state dominated by Democrats.
The measure's sponsors downplayed the urgency to pass the measure in the lame-duck session, suggesting the issue could win approval in the next Legislature, which convenes next week. Steans still insisted approval of gay marriage in Illinois remained "a question of when, not if."
"As people vote," Steans said, "they should be thinking about where we want to be in history on this."
Steans says she still might call a vote Tuesday when the Senate returns before the end of the lame-duck session on Wednesday.
But Senate President John Cullerton – like Steans, a Chicago Democrat – said it might be a weeks before the bill gets a full Senate vote. His spokeswoman said "the bill needs work," and even Steans suggested working with Republican opponents to get a bipartisan agreement.
Expectations were high for a productive end to the 97th General Assembly, with legislation not only on gay marriage but on assault-weapons restrictions and the Leviathan Illinois issue, a solution to the $96 billion hole in state retirement-benefit accounts.
Gun curbs advanced, and Cullerton made an adjustment to a Senate-approved measure that addresses a small portion of the pension problem, which he's advanced as a stepping stone to wholesale modification.
A more comprehensive fix has been proposed in the House, which isn't scheduled to return to Springfield until Sunday – giving Gov. Pat Quinn reason to stay optimistic that his top priority will still get attention.
The governor and his staff have been "meeting privately with individual leaders and their staffs for weeks to forge common ground on pension reform," spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said. "Progress has been made."
Democrats hold a 35-24 majority in the Senate, but party members outside Chicago don't always toe the line. Not all are on board with extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.
A gay actor who stars in a popular TV comedy campaigned for the measure in Illinois while religious leaders – including 1,700 clergy, from Catholic to Muslim – united in writing lawmakers to oppose it.
Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the Illinois Family Institute, told lawmakers the bill was "an attack on our particular religious beliefs" and that it would force churches and other religious institutions to allow their facilities to be used for same-sex marriages.
Steans said that wouldn't be the case, but she said she planned to work with Republicans to address some of those concerns.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Springfield Catholic diocese said the bill would undermine "natural marriage" between a man and a woman and would send a message that children don't need a mother and a father.
"Laws teach," Paprocki said. "They tell us what is socially acceptable and what is not."
Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe brought their two children to testify in favor of the bill. The Chicago women have been together 21 years.
Volpe said while the couple has a civil union, a hospital administrator once refused to let her into their son's room because she and Santos aren't married. She said their family deserves the same respect given to other married families.
"We shouldn't have to always carry paperwork to show we are their real mothers," she said.
And in a twist not uncommon in Illinois politics, the state's Republican Party chairman said he was lobbying for what he termed a conservative position in favor of proposal, calling it a matter of equality for "the party of Lincoln."
"I don't think the government should be in the business of telling people who can and can't get married," GOP chairman Pat Brady said Thursday. "... This is the most conservative position."
Supporters said they pressed the matter in the waning days of the General Assembly's session to take advantage of soaring support in the state and nationally.
And lame-duck lawmakers theoretically have more freedom to vote without fear of voter backlash. Even though Democrats will claim a 40-19 advantage in the new session, newcomers will bring more diverse views in a state where southern Illinoisans live closer to Birmingham, Ala., than to Chicago.
The plan comes just 18 months after Illinois recognized civil unions. It is riding a wave from November ballot questions in several states bolstering gay marriage and support from Obama, whose political career began in the Illinois Senate.
But the hiccups quickly. Steans' attempt to get the amended marriage language onto an existing bill Wednesday night stalled when Republicans demanded a roll call on a procedural measure and defeated the bill's progress.
The Executive Committee vote gave Steans a needed victory, but she called off a floor vote Thursday, saying earlier in the day she needed votes missing members – one Democrat who was out of the country, another who had a family issue to attend, and a GOP supporter who was absent because of her mother's death.
"People are changing their minds every day," Steans said. "This is never going to be an easy one, but it's only going to get easier."
The bill is HB4963.