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N.Y. Republican Senators to Conference Marriage Equality Bill

N.Y. Republican Senators to Conference Marriage Equality Bill

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In a significant development for the marriage equality bill in New York, Senate majority leader Dean Skelos said Thursday that he would present the measure, including newly amended language for religious exemptions, to his conference to decide whether to schedule a vote.

The announcement, made by Skelos to reporters in the late morning, represented the first major sign this week of movement on the bill, which has been delayed in the Republican-controlled Senate since passing the Democratic-controlled Assembly last week. In addition to the traffic from other items at the end of the legislative session, Republican senators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have been negotiating as-yet-unspecified language for more religious protections in the bill.

Capitol Confidential tweeted that Skelos said the conference would be "lengthy." The meeting is expected sometime this afternoon, with late Thursday or even very early Friday morning as possible windows for a vote, should the Republican senators decide to bring the bill to the floor.

Whether Skelos and his 32 members, two of whom publicly support the marriage equality bill, decide to hold a vote represents the crucial question at this point. The leader, who personally opposes the measure, already vowed last year that he would at least conference the marriage equality bill, but he cautioned it would only come to a vote with the approval of his members.

As protests for and against the marriage equality bill continue to fill the capitol in Albany, the Republican conference faces enormous public and political pressure on both sides of the question whether to hold a vote. Cuomo indicated this week that he feels "cautiously optimistic" about having reached a "threshold" with 31 votes committed and would like to see a vote, while New York State Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, whose party provides an influential endorsement to the GOP in New York, is urging senators not to vote. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a major contributor to Senate Republicans and this season's marriage equality campaign, which has raised more than $1 million from Republican donors, also wants an up-or-down vote.

Only one more vote, which must come from a Republican senator, is needed to pass the marriage equality bill. A handful of senators have been identified as undecided, and it is likely that more than one undecided member would back the bill to provide a political cushion. Potential yes votes include senators Kemp Hannon, Andrew Lanza, and Stephen Saland, the three Republicans who negotiated the religious exemption language with Cuomo's office.

No religious exemption language has been made public, and Cuomo said it has involved rounds of "back-and-forth" discussions, but people familiar with the negotiations said the talks focused on narrow issues that would not roll back the protections for sexual orientation in the state's current laws. The amendment language also needs to be approved by the Assembly, and on Wednesday Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver indicated he felt comfortable with a draft he had seen.

A long Republican conference session followed by a potential marriage equality vote makes it unclear whether the matter will be settled by the time President Barack Obama, who continues to "evolve" on the issue, is scheduled to address LGBT Democrats at a high-dollar fund-raiser in Midtown Manhattan this evening.

New York City is currently celebrating its annual LGBT Pride Week.

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