The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would make Connecticut the first state, absent court pressure, to recognize civil unions (search) between same-sex couples.

Senators voted 27-9 in favor of the legislation, which proponents say will likely clear the House of Representatives, possibly as early as next week. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell (search) has not taken a stand on the bill, but has said she supports the concept of civil unions.

"I believe that our most precious and important job is to make sure the rights of all our citizens are protected where they exist and expanded where they don't exist," said Democratic Sen. Mary Ann Handley, who is part of a group of legislators who plan to press for gay marriage in Connecticut.

The vote came a day after Kansas became the 18th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (search). Thirteen other states passed such prohibitions last year, while Alabama, South Dakota and Tennessee plan elections next year on constitutional bans.

Gay rights proponents originally hoped to pass a bill similar to the Massachusetts law that allows same-sex couples to marry. But legislative leaders determined there was more political support this session for Vermont-style civil unions, which extend the same rights and privileges of marriage, but without the marriage license.

According to the 2000 census, there are 7,400 same-sex couples in Connecticut.