Liberals won a long-fought victory in Maryland, passing a bill Thursday that would make the state the eighth in the nation to approve gay marriage, while across the Potomac River, Republicans backpedaled for the second time in a week on major abortion-related legislation.
In Richmond, six Republicans joined 18 Democrats in killing a "personhood" measure in the Virginia Senate that would define life as beginning at conception. In Annapolis, the Democrat-controlled Senate on a 25-22 vote sent a gay-marriage bill to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who spearheaded the effort.
''I think the legislative process has worked well in this case, and I think it's been a very open process," Mr. O'Malley said. "I look forward to signing the bill."
The issues are emblematic of passionate debates across the country, where statehouse lawmakers have been embroiled in social issues this year.
A push for gay marriage was felled in New Jersey and succeeded in Washington, for example. The Oklahoma state Senate last week approved a personhood measure, though similar efforts were defeated in ballot initiatives in recent years in Mississippi and Colorado.
The debates are taking place amid national uproar over the Obama administration's decision to mandate that religious institutions cover forms of contraception, including birth control, even if it ran counter to their religious beliefs. Insurers will now be required to cover the items. President Obama himself proposed to expand conscience exemptions, but the Catholic Church and other religious bodies said he did not go far enough.
But Virginia's personhood bill and another measure that would require women who get an abortion to first undergo an invasive ultrasound procedure had attracted particularly heightened attention on cable news and late-night comedy shows, culminating with a five-minute-plus skewering by Jon Stewart on Tuesday night's episode of "The Daily Show."
Conservative priorities fail, falter
Just hours after a Virginia state Senate committee voted Thursday to advance the personhood bill, the full Senate by a 24-14 count re-referred it to committee — a move that essentially dooms the measure until at least 2013.
The action came a day after Gov. Bob McDonnell backed off his full support of the ultrasound bill. The bill had been criticized because most abortions are performed early in pregnancy, meaning many women would have been subjected to an invasive, transvaginal procedure.
Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, proposed amendments to the bill that would instead mandate an ultrasound procedure — either the external "jelly-on-the-belly" test or the invasive exam.
The decision left Democrats angry that a medically unnecessary procedure would still be mandated and conservatives irked that the measure passed in the House and headed to the Senate floor was watered down by the McDonnell amendments.
Though Mr. McDonnell is solidly pro-life, both as attorney general and as governor he has styled himself as a "results-oriented conservative" focused on economic development and job creation.
"This issue threatened to overshadow the political identity he had successfully cultivated, and in some ways really threatened to take it off the table," said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst. "I'm not sure this solution satisfies either side. He eventually needs some support from the pro-life folks, suggesting this was a reasonable accommodation."
Mr. McDonnell would have been put in a similar position if the personhood measure came to his desk, Mr. Holsworth said, but the Senate's move spared him of acting on that bill, on which he never took an official position.
At least in Virginia, social issues are fast becoming fodder for a Democratic Party that has lost its way in recent years, Mr. Holsworth said.
"Essentially for Democrats, they're seeing this as their road to independent women," he said. "For a party that has been looking for a way to find a way to come back, Democrats are eager to keep these issues going for as long as they can."
A Democratic victory
In Maryland, the passage of a gay-marriage bill comes after a bitter defeat last year for many in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
After narrowly passing the sharply divided House last week with some vote wrangling by Democratic leaders, the bill had a much easier road in the Senate.
"It's just a remarkable day for the people of the state of Maryland," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery Democrat who is openly gay. "And I'm just so proud that I've been a part of it."
Supporters had lobbied since last year's bill died in the House. They picked up a crucial ally when Mr. O'Malley announced he would sponsor this year's bill, hoping to follow in the footsteps of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who successfully shepherded a gay-marriage bill through his legislature.
This year, supporters based a larger part of their argument on assuring religious groups that the bill would not infringe on their beliefs.
The bill would allow gay couples to enter state-recognized marriages but would exempt religious institutions and groups from having to perform or recognize such unions.
Opponents submitted several amendments to the Senate bill — including changes to increase protections for religious groups and religion-minded residents — but all were rejected by the bill's supporters.
House amendments approved last week push the bill's effective date from October to January and prevent it from being enacted until any lawsuits over a potential referendum effort are resolved.
The amendments would also require the law to be voided if any part is declared unconstitutional — an attempt to win over lawmakers who feared that religious-conscience objections might be gutted by a court and churches then forced to perform gay marriages.
The Senate resisted further amendments, largely in an effort to keep the bill from returning to the contentious House, to the dismay of opponents.
"If we have opportunity to improve upon this bill, then we should do so," said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, Washington Republican. "And I think it is our obligation to do so."
The legislation passed with support from 24 of 35 Democrats and just one of 12 Republicans — Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican. It was opposed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who said he considers marriage between a man and woman.
The Senate's passage now gives opponents the official go-ahead to begin a petition effort to force a referendum.
Petitioners will have until June 30 to collect 55,736 valid signatures from registered voters. If successful, the law will be suspended and put on November's ballot.
Many gay-marriage supporters have bristled at the thought of a referendum, arguing that the bill is a civil-rights measure and should thus not be left in the hands of a potentially unwilling public.
Mr. O'Malley said he understands such concerns but has faith that voters will make the right decision. Recent polls show Marylanders to be divided almost evenly on the issue.
"I have a great amount of trust, faith and intelligence of the people of Maryland," the governor said. "So I don't fear their judgment."
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