OLYMPIA, Wash. – The Washington state Senate is set to take a crucial vote Wednesday on a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage.
The bill has narrow support in the Senate, but is expected to pass because supporters have secured 26 "yes" votes -- one more than the 25 required for approval. Four senators, one Democrat and three Republicans, have not committed their votes.
If passed by the Senate, the measure moves to the House, which has enough votes to pass the bill by a more comfortable margin. Also, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire supports the measure and said she will sign it into law, which would make Washington state the seventh state to approve gay marriage.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, still cautioned, "Nothing is done until it is actually voted on."
The Senate debate Wednesday is expected to begin around 6 p.m.
As the vote loomed, conservative Democratic Sen. Brian Hatfield committed his support to the measure -- becoming the 26th senator to back it. Hatfield said in a statement to The Associated Press that it has been one of the most difficult issues he has ever been associated with. He believes his vote in either direction would alienate him from longtime friends.
"This is a measure that has emotionally torn at me as I have wrestled with my choice," Hatfield said, noting that he has spent months in thought and prayer on the issue. He said that while private citizens can ultimately oppose gay marriage, he as a legislator cannot because it would be viewed as discrimination.
Hatfield still supports a public vote on the issue.
The Senate Rules Committee voted Tuesday to advance the measure for a vote by the full chamber with Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, president of the Senate, saying that he has emphasized tolerance and diversity at state schools for decades, which would make it "hypocritical for me to not support this bill."
"For me, this is not a religious question," said Owen, a Democrat. "It's a legal question."
The committee advanced the bill on a 14-7 vote, with seven of the eight Republicans on the committee in opposition. Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, voted to advance it. She is one of two Republican senators who have said they will support the measure.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have already promised a referendum battle at the ballot if the measure becomes law.
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.
Lawmakers in New Jersey and Maryland are expected to debate gay marriage this year, and Maine is likely to see a gay marriage proposal on the November ballot.
A referendum can't be filed until after the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gregoire. Opponents then must turn in 120,577 signatures by June 6.
Washington state has had a domestic partnership law since 2007 and an "everything but marriage" expansion of the domestic partnership law since 2009. Gay marriage bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate this year, and received their first public hearings this month.