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If the bill passes the Senate, it will move to the House, where lawmakers will take the legal but unusual step of referring it to two standing committees: the House Judiciary Committee and Health and Government Operations Committee.

Democratic leaders say the move is necessary because gay marriage deals with two distinct areas of law — family law, which is usually handled by Judiciary, and civil rights, which are typically handled by Health and Government Operations.

The committees are expected to hold a joint hearing on the bill and could vote on it separately or as a joint body. If they vote separately, passage by one committee but not the other would still move the bill to the House floor.

Last year’s bill narrowly passed the Judiciary Committee, and opponents argue referring this year’s legislation to two committees is designed to increase its odds of passage.

“There’s only one reason they’d send it to a joint committee,” Mr. Dwyer said. “The heads have already been counted and there’s enough votes to put it out.”

Most officials acknowledge that if the bill passes, there is a strong chance opponents will gather enough signatures to force it to a November referendum.

Marylanders are split evenly on the issue, according to a poll released this month by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc.

The poll showed 49 percent of respondents favored gay marriage while 47 percent opposed. There was a 3.5 percent margin of error.

“We know we’ve got a lot of hard work and we’re prepared to do it,” said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat.