DENVER — Even with President Obama "evolving" his way to support of gay marriage, the politics of the issue are playing out in complex and contradictory ways in the states, with potentially large consequences for the vote in November.
The 2012 state legislative session began with gay-rights advocates opposing an "everything-but-marriage" law in Washington state and ended with them supporting an "everything-but-marriage" bill in Colorado.
Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty became a target for the gay-rights movement Monday when he effectively killed a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions by assigning it to an unfriendly committee during this week's legislative special session.
Five months earlier, however, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire won plaudits from the gay-rights movement when she called the state's domestic-partners law "a version of the discriminatory 'separate but equal' argument of the past."
The difference, of course, lies in the context. Mrs. Gregoire is a Democrat who wanted to see the state's domestic-partners law replaced by same-sex marriage, while Mr. McNulty is a Republican in a state with no such laws.
The fight in Colorado could have outsized consequences, as the state and its nine electoral votes have emerged as a key prize in the presidential battle this fall. The failed drive to approve civil unions could wind up energizing the base voters of both parties in the state.
Jace Woodrum, executive director of the gay-rights group One Colorado, said that pushing same-sex marriage in Colorado would have been a stretch, given that the state has a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"The process of changing constitutional language is difficult," said Ms. Woodrum "and there's a question of whether Colorado is ready for that. But people in Colorado are ready for civil unions. Poll after poll shows the public overwhelmingly in favor."
The Colorado civil-unions bill went from being an afterthought to taking center stage last week with the convergence of two unexpected events: Mr. Obama announced that he favored same-sex marriage, and the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill after a Republican legislator switched her vote.
With the bill headed to the House floor, where vote-counters expected it to pass, Mr. McNulty allowed the clock to expire on the session rather than bring it up for a vote. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, immediately called for a special session to give the bill another hearing, but this time Mr. McNulty assigned it to the Veterans' Affairs Committee, where it died again on a party-line vote.
Supporters of the bill this week blasted Mr. McNulty, accusing him of using legislative sleight of hand to defeat a bill that had popular support, and vowed to make him pay at the polls in November.
"Fair-minded Coloradans have been outraged by the abuse of the legislative process we've seen with this bill," said Democratic state Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the bill's sponsor. "They will work to assure that in the future we will have a House leadership that respects the will of the majority of our state representatives and the majority of the people of Colorado."
Republicans accused state Democrats of using the issue for political gain in order to energize the president's liberal base in November. GOP lawmakers noted that civil unions were a non-issue until the president announced his support for gay marriage, pointing out that there was no reaction in 2011 when a similar bill died in a House committee.
Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office from 2006 to 2010, yet never pushed for civil unions. Colorado voters passed the Defense of Marriage Amendment and defeated a civil-unions measure at the polls in 2006.
"I'm concerned that the gay community is being used as a political pawn," said Republican state Rep. Don Coram, who said he has a gay son but voted against the bill, citing the 2006 vote.
When Democrats controlled the legislature, "the issue didn't come up," he said. "I think the voters that I represent, their vote needs to be respected."
Ms. Woodrum said supporters of civil unions needed time to build support after the 2006 vote. "In the wake of the referendum's failure, it was important to build support over time," she said.
Mr. McNulty said he thought the voters would see through the politics. "Democrats use these social issues as fundraising ploys so they'll pander to their wealthy donors," he said. "Folks here are concerned about the economy. They'll see through this smoke screen and elect Republicans in the fall."
Fifteen states have approved same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic-partner measures. Two states, Washington and Maryland, approved same-sex marriage bills during the 2012 legislative session, although both are now likely to go to voter referendums in the fall.
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