SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois Senate Democrats delayed a floor vote Thursday on legislation to make the state the 10th in the nation to legalize gay marriage, but the sponsor expressed confidence there would be enough votes to pass it soon.
After two days of snags in moving the issue, Sen. Heather Steans finally won committee approval by an 8-5 vote Thursday evening, sending the measure next to the floor.
But when supporters would get a crack at the divisive issue there remained unclear. Democrats called off a full Senate vote earlier Thursday after Steans said two supportive Democrats and a Republican weren't present for the General Assembly's lame-duck session.
But the Chicago Democrat said the delay would only push a vote into next week or, at the latest, soon after the new Legislature is sworn in Jan. 9.
"This is definitely a question of when, not if," Steans said. "This is the right thing to be doing."
Senate Democrats hold a 35-24 majority, but even in President Barack Obama's home state, party members outside Chicago don't always toe the line. Not all are on board with extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, and key supporters did not attend Thursday's session.
Hoping to ride momentum from the November elections and public encouragement from Obama, the postponement was another jolt in a bumpy ride for the issue this week, which began with high expectations but also fierce opposition.
A gay actor who stars in a popular TV comedy campaigned for the measure in Illinois while religious leaders -- including a phalanx of 1,700 clergy, from Catholic to Muslim -- united in writing lawmakers to oppose it.
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."
It was a political risk for Democrats, who came to Springfield with voters most concerned about the $96 billion debt in the state's public pension systems, a problem Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, a gay-marriage supporter, said should nonetheless be the lame-duck session's top priority.
Supporters said they pressed the matter in the waning days of the 97th General Assembly to take advantage of soaring support in the state and nationally.
But lame ducks 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 began before the champagne bottles were uncorked. Steans' attempt to amend 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.
Advocates finally had something to cheer when a new vehicle for the legislation won approval in the influential Senate Executive Committee Thursday, controlled by the Senate President, John Cullerton of Chicago. The meeting was delayed for hours as Democrats scrambled to shore up support.
One Democrat was out of the country and another had a family issue to attend, while a GOP supporter 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."