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Updated: Friday, 25 Jan 2013, 8:49 AM EST
Published : Thursday, 24 Jan 2013, 9:26 PM EST
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - The Democrats who lead Rhode Island's Senate say they're in no rush to take up a bill legalizing same-sex marriage despite the House of Representatives' overwhelming vote in favor of the measure Thursday.
While Democrats hold a 32-5 majority in Rhode Island's upper chamber, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio of Providence and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey of Warwick are all opposed to gay marriage.
It will be at least weeks and possibly months before the Senate takes up the same-sex marriage bill, Paiva Weed told reporters after the House vote when she was asked about it at an economic conference for senators.
"Traditionally we adjourn in early June or late May ... so it certainly will be in the next few months," Paiva Weed said. She dismissed concerns that the debate over same-sex marriage could overshadow other legislation, saying the Senate will focus on the economy.
"There isn't one issue that rises or falls to any greater level than economic development for the Senate," she said.
McCaffrey, whose committee has never voted on same-sex marriage, pledged during a debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers last year that he wouldn't block a vote. McCaffrey told WPRI.com on Thursday that he has "no timeline" for when the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the issue.
"I think we had a good economic conference here this evening, and I think we're better off initiating things that were recommended this evening here, and focus on business and jobs and to help the economy," McCaffrey said.
The 10-member Senate Judiciary Committee is closely divided on same-sex marriage, with four members expected to vote in favor and four others expected to vote against. The two undecided senators - Paul Jabour, D-Providence, and William Conley, D-East Providence - are already being lobbied hard by both sides.
Public opinion in Rhode Island favors allowing gay marriage. A WPRI 12 poll last September showed 56% of Rhode Island voters support legalization, while 36% are opposed and 8% are unsure.
Ray Sullivan, campaign director for the pro-legalization group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said he was focused Thursday night on the successful vote in the House. "There's a real palpable sense of momentum," Sullivan told WPRI.com. "People want to be part of this effort to make history and make Rhode Island a place that accepts and recognizes all loving committed couples equally."
Sullivan said his group is "eager to have thoughtful and productive conversations" with members of the Senate. "There's a process," he said. "We respect that process. ... All we can ask is that senators review what we have to offer with an open mind and an open heart."
The Rev. Bernard Healey, executive director of the anti-legalization Rhode Island Catholic Conference and an influential State House lobbyist, said the House vote "strikes against the very foundation of our culture" and urged the Senate to ignore the issue.
"Given that the United States Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on this very divisive matter, legislative leaders should focus on initiatives to reduce the state’s high rate of unemployment and poverty by addressing the economic challenges that affect all Rhode Islanders," Healey said in a statement.
Sen. Joshua Miller, one of the upper chamber's strongest supporters of same-sex marriage, argued the Senate would be better off dealing with the issue quickly to get it out of the way rather than letting it linger for months.
"One of the more intriguing ways to redefine the session, if you have other priorities, is by having a vote earlier rather than later," Miller, D-Cranston, told WPRI.com.
"I have bills that I consider to have merit that I don't want to have overshadowed by this, and those initiatives that people feel they don't want to have overshadowed could have their own day if this vote wasn't overshadowing the whole session," he said.
Miller said he has no idea when Paiva Weed and McCaffrey will hold a hearing. "It's totally up to the chair [of the committee] and the leadership of the Senate on when a bill gets heard by the chamber, so I couldn't speculate on when it might come up," he said. But, he added, "I'm optimistic about the whole thing, especially after the House vote."
Paiva Weed congratulated House Speaker Gordon Fox, a Providence Democrat who is openly gay, on the House's 51-19 vote to back the bill. "I know that this has been the single most important issue to him of this session, and my general reaction is to congratulate the speaker," she said.
Paiva Weed also said she does not support the Defense of Marriage Act, referring to legislation introduced this week by Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, which would ask voters to decide whether the state constitution should define marriage as "a lawful union between one man and one woman." Ruggerio and McCaffrey are co-sponsors of the bill.
What the Senate will do next was a topic of discussion during the House debate on Thursday.
Rep. Doc Corvese, one of the staunchest opponents of same-sex marriage in the legislature, predicted the House bill would face obstacles in the upper chamber. "I think the absence of religious rights of conscience legislation will be noted by the Senate,” Corvese, D-North Providence, said on the floor.
House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who voted in favor of the bill, argued the Senate should take it up immediately. "Don't hold this out to dry," Newberry, R-North Smithfield, said during the debate.
Dan McGowan contributed to this report.
Copyright WPRI 12
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