- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Legislative backroom dealing has cleared the way for a much anticipated and nationally scrutinized showdown on gay marriage in New York as early as Wednesday as closed-door talks over additional religious protections appeared to show progress.

After a marathon session Tuesday to pass deals involving taxes, state university tuition and other issues, the Republican-led Senate will be able to focus on whether to release a gay marriage bill to the floor for a vote. The issue appears to be one vote short of approval; Senate Republicans mostly oppose gay marriage while 29 of 30 Democrats support it.

One Republican senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity Tuesday said only a couple senators haven’t yet told colleagues of their positions.

“If it goes, it’s going to be close,” the senator said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the conference has agreed to withhold comment for days on the pressure-packed issue.

New York’s vote is pivotal in the national debate over same-sex marriage, an effort that largely stalled in the same chamber two years ago when the Senate voted it down. Since then, efforts have failed in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Maryland. Advocates hope a “yes” vote will jump-start the effort.

Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. Of them, all but Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., allow at least limited religious exemptions.

The two New York Republicans clearly undecided are Sen. Stephen Saland of the Hudson Valley, one of the Senate’s most veteran and respected members, and Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, a freshman who is part of the GOP youth movement voted into office in the 2010 Republican tide nationwide.

Negotiations continue over additional religious protections that some undecided Republicans want, and progress appears to have been made so far in closed-door talks. The religious protections would protect churches and other religious groups from discrimination lawsuits if they declined to perform gay marriages or offer other services to gay couples.

“We’re open to doing amendments that guarantee religious freedom in this state,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, after a closed-door session with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

That’s a key movement by Mr. Silver, whose chamber already passed Mr. Cuomo’s bill. The Assembly would have to agree to amendments or pass a new bill identical to a Senate bill, a process unlikely to be supported in the Assembly late in the session unless there was a strong chance it would pass.

The legislative session originally was scheduled to end Monday but was extended until Tuesday.

“We have not finalized language regarding religious protection; that is still being reviewed,” said Mr. Skelos, a Long Island Republican who opposes gay marriage but has said it will be up to the entire Republican caucus to decide whether it gets a vote.

Talks on gay marriage continued well out of earshot of a gathering of several hundred supporters in a park adjacent to the Capitol while opponents sang hymns and chanted inside the Capitol.

State police corralled demonstrators away from the Senate’s inner conference room and kept them separate after a day of loud but peaceful demonstrations by both sides.

Two Republicans, Sens. Roy McDonald and James Alesi, also support the bill, creating a 31-31 tie, with at least Mr. Saland and Mr. Gristani undecided.

A tie probably would kill the bill, although Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy could try to cast his vote normally reserved for procedural matters. That would likely be tested in the courts.

Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.

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