In a straight party-line vote, the Judiciary Committee of the New York State Assembly this afternoon approved the marriage equality bill introduced by Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer in April and sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell and Senator Tom Duane.
The favorable vote out of Judiciary is a strong predictor that the full Assembly will approve the measure later this week.
The 16-5 vote came at the conclusion of roughly 10 minutes of deliberation during which O'Donnell, an openly gay Upper West Side Democrat and a Committee member, fielded questions from its ranking Republican, Jack Quinn of upstate Hamburg, near Buffalo.
Among the questions Quinn posed to O'Donnell were why civil unions were not an adequate substitute for marriage equality and what other state legislatures had passed such legislation.
The vote in the Assembly, coming as it does just three days before the Legislature recesses, is significant for several reasons.
The Democratic conference, which includes 108 of the chamber's 150 members, has been weighing whether to bring the bill to the floor for the past month. Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Democratic leader from the Lower East Side, was known to be unwilling to have a floor vote unless he were certain that his party had enough votes, at least 76, for passage, and the number of known Democratic supporters has been hovering right near that number for the past several weeks.
It is widely considered unlikely that the bill would have gone to the Committee unless the intention were to take it as well to the Assembly floor. The unanimous Democratic vote for the measure signals that the conference has come around to support its passage.
Specifically, four of the Democrats who supported the measure today - Helene Weinstein of Queens, the Committee chair; Peter Rivera of the Bronx; Michele Titus of Queens; and Kenneth Zebrowski, Jr., of Rockland County - were all to-date publicly neutral. The shift of four Democrats in a group of 16 confirms the party's coalescence around the measure.
Observers in Albany are predicting that the full Assembly may take up the bill as early as Tuesday. The only obstacle remaining prior to a vote on the floor is approval by the Rules Committee, chaired by Speaker Silver. That formality would likely come immediately prior to an Assembly vote.
Though passage of the marriage equality bill in the Assembly seems increasingly assured in this session, the prospects in the Senate are considerably more problematic.
The Republicans hold a two-seat advantage among 62, and Joe Bruno, the Rensselaer-area Senate majority leader, has said he will not move the bill in his chamber. But time may be working against Bruno; his majority has been trimmed in each of several recent elections, and he currently faces a federal probe of his outside business dealings.
The most recent Senate special election, held in February to fill a vacancy previously in Republican hands in Nassau County, saw the election of Democrat Craig Johnson, a vocal marriage equality supporter. Numerous Albany insiders have predicted that another Democratic special election win could force one or more nervous Republicans to bolt their party, relinquishing GOP control of the Senate.
Duane, the marriage bill's Senate sponsor, has lined up 18 of his Democratic colleagues as co-sponsors. The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's LGBT lobby, puts the number of Senate marriage equality supporters at 20, with 29 opposed and 13 uncommitted.