A week after the state's highest court declared lawmakers had a duty to cast a vote, the Massachusetts Legislature yesterday advanced a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, pushing it over a critical hurdle to get onto the 2008 state ballot.
In a tense afternoon of nose-counting and backroom negotiations, the proposal received 62 votes, a dozen more than required, from the joint session of the House and Senate. The vote was gaveled through by Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, chairman of the constitutional convention, who ignored efforts by the House leadership for time to debate the issue and gain votes to defeat the measure.
The proposed amendment now moves to the next legislative session, where it will have to be approved again by at least 50 lawmakers in order to be placed on the November 2008 ballot. The narrow margin left gay marriage advocates optimistic they could defeat the measure in the new legislative session, which begins today.
Still, the vote marked a dramatic shift in fortune for social conservatives and Governor Mitt Romney, who just weeks ago had little hope the petition would move forward. Both they and same-sex marriage advocates said the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling was the major factor that shifted the political ground in favor of the proposed amendment.
"This is a victory for democracy, it's a victory for the people's right to petition, and . . . it's a victory for the constitution, the oldest living constitution in the world," said Kris Mineau, the president of Massachusetts Family Institute, which is spearheading the drive for the proposal defining marriage as between only a man and a woman.
"We are a nation of laws and we proved that," Mineau said.
Romney, who is expected to file papers to open a presidential exploratory account today, described the vote as a "huge victory for the people of Massachusetts." After the Nov. 9 constitutional convention, when lawmakers recessed without taking a vote on the petition, Romney joined forces with same-sex marriage opponents to seek a ruling from the SJC. He also sent lawmakers a copy of the state constitution, pointing to language saying that legislators must vote on citizen ballot petitions.
"In a democracy, the voice of the people is sovereign," Romney said in a statement released by his office yesterday. "I congratulate the Legislature and its leadership for upholding the Constitution and the rule of law."
After the SJC on Dec. 27 declared that legislators had a constitutional duty to vote on the petition, same-sex marriage backers saw support for their plans to adjourn the convention without taking a vote collapse. The justices said they could not force the Legislature to vote, but the strongly worded opinion laying out the legislators' constitutional obligation rattled many on Beacon Hill.
In the days since, same-sex marriage supporters argued that placing the ban in the constitution would undermine the rights of thousands of same-sex couples. At the same time, they indicated that with just 50 votes in the 200-member Legislature necessary to advance the measure, they were likely to lose.
"This is devastatingly troublesome to us, but it is not shocking because we knew on a vote on the merits that we were going to lose," Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
"Instead we have a mean-spirited antigay amendment that is going to live on until next year and we believe will wreak havoc on this state if it goes to the ballot in 2008," Isaacson said. "It would be one of the most nasty and divisive battles the state has ever seen, viciously antigay. We will do everything in our power to stop that from happening."
Still, same-sex marriage advocates on Beacon Hill predicted that the new Legislature, whose members were elected in November and take office at noon today, will be more receptive to rejecting the amendment. They predict that they will gain seven votes to oppose the amendment and that six of those among the 62 who voted for the petition can be persuaded to vote against it.
"I'm personally heartened by the fact that we are within just a few votes of changing this around," said state Representative Michael Festa, a Democrat from Melrose. Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat from the South End and assistant House majority leader, said the vote for the petition fell significantly short of what same-sex marriage proponents expected. He said the roll call on the petition offers a road map to defeat it.
"We know who we have to talk to," Rushing said.
Mineau agreed that the petition faces major obstacles in the next several years to get on the ballot.
"We just slid into second," Mineau said. "To win in the next year and a half we have to make third base with another vote in the next session, and then home plate is the election 2008."
Both sides in the fight note that one new factor will be incoming governor Deval Patrick, a major advocate for keeping same-sex marriage legal. Patrick's use of the bully pulpit of the office will be a key ingredient in a future vote on the petition.
Patrick appeared on Beacon Hill before the convention, meeting with legislative leaders and holding a news conference to urge legislators to use "whatever means appropriate" to kill the measure. Emerging from the office of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who was lobbying House members to kill the amendment, Patrick described the issue as a "question of conscience" and said same-sex marriage is a civil right that should not be subject to a referendum. He said the question of civil rights outweighs the provisions providing for citizens petitions to amend the constitution.
One Senate leader said Patrick's lobbying -- which included a letter and calls to lawmakers -- irritated Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, who had been pushing his colleagues to abide by the court's ruling. The two met privately in the Senate president's office. An aide said the two had a cordial conversation.
Lawmakers yesterday voted on the measure twice. First they voted 62 to 132, and then promptly voted to reconsider the motion, leading to speculation that they would reverse their action. However, they then voted on the measure a second time: the results, 62 to 134.
The session brought out the tension that has developed between Travaglini and DiMasi. Travaglini, who has said the issue of same-sex marriage should be decided by voters, ran the convention with a strong gavel.
Both times the petition came up for a vote yesterday, he moved to a roll call with virtually no debate, angering DiMasi and his leadership team who were trying to stretch out the debate. The House leaders, working with same-sex marriage advocates and supporters in the Legislature, were considering strategies that could block a vote on the proposal, but Travaglini's decision to call the vote quickly foiled their efforts.
"There has been discussion on this issue for three years," Travaglini said as he left the House chamber after the final vote. "There was no new elements brought into the conversation."
DiMasi remained in his office, just off the House chamber where the convention was held, trying to persuade lawmakers to kill the measure.