Cuomo tries to box in GOP Senate on gay marriage

The effort to legalize gay marriage in New York is getting an all-out lobbying effort from Democrats and celebrities, but there's still no sign of wavering among a critical bloc of Senate Republicans who led the defeat of the measure and blunted national momentum two years ago.

Advocates for gay marriage in New York, trying to revive the national campaign, may be just two votes away from winning in Albany in the closing five days of the legislative session.

Each side is funded by more than $1 million from national and state advocates that's being used in media blitzes and in promised campaign cash for lawmakers who side with them. The effort, organized by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a top policy objective, drew three Democratic senators and one Republican, James Alesi, to the cause on Monday. Half a dozen senators remain uncommitted publicly and others could still cast surprise votes on the Senate floor, as several did in 2009.

"Many of us thought that Sen. Alesi would be in favor it, so the only difference now is that he's public with it," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, a Republican opposed to the gay marriage bill. "So there's not really a net gain there."

The sole Democratic senator opposed to the bill, the Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, continues to drum up opposition, saying it's his calling.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan blogged Tuesday that approving gay marriage is akin to a communist country redefining other basic human rights.

"In those countries, government presumes to `redefine' rights, relationships, values and natural law," Dolan stated. He said "courageous" senators are facing a "stampede" of lobbying to change their votes. "But, please, not here! Our country's founding principles speak of rights given by God, not invented by government."

Legalizing gay marriage in New York, the media capital of the world and a major tourist destination, is a critical win for the national effort. Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C. But the effort has flagged since the 2009 defeat in New York, which surprised some advocates. Opponents are bolstered by defeats of similar bills in Maryland and Rhode Island this year, and recent polls have shown New Yorkers slightly less supportive of gay marriage as the issue gained more attention this year.

Whether the Democrats' stepped-up campaign this week in New York reflects growing momentum or a desperate effort to provide themselves some political cover will be played out by Monday, the last scheduled day of the legislative session. Republicans plan to conclude as early as Friday.

Cuomo said his bill is "roughly" the same as the one defeated in 2009 in a Senate then led by Democrats. Republicans won a 32-30 majority in 2010.

"Hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers, like me, are treated like second-class citizens," said "Sex in the City" star Cynthia Nixon in her latest lobbying in Albany. She said Tuesday she's been engaged to another woman for seven years but unable to marry in her home state.

"It's time we treat all committed couples equally," said Sean Avery, a New York Ranger and one of several professional athletes and celebrities including Lady GaGa who have pressed for gay marriage.

Cuomo's bill was expected to be sent to the Senate on Tuesday. It will be discussed in a closed-door Republican conference on Wednesday, where the first vote count could be held. But as in 2009, several senators are expected to disclose their position only in the floor vote, a dramatic moment rare in Albany where most issues are decided by majority conferences long before a public vote.

Republican Sen. Greg Ball said Tuesday that "arrogance" on the extremes of both sides of the issue has stopped real debate and negotiation on Cuomo's bill. The Democratic governor says the bill doesn't include additional religious exemptions, key to attracting votes from Ball and others who want churches, religious groups and individuals opposed to gay marriage exempted from performing or hosting gay marriages.

"I think if the governor pays real respect to the need for religious carve-outs and builds that into this bill, creating a clear definition between civil marriage and religious marriage, it's going to take the wind out of the sales of people like Jason McGuire who are against the bill," Ball said. "To the extent that's not done, I don't see how you get it passed."

Cuomo flatly said "no" when asked Tuesday if his bill will include the additional religious exemptions sought by McGuire, an Elmira pastor and president of the New Yorkers Family Research Foundation, who says gay marriage damages children.

A group of 734 clergy and lay leaders disagrees with McGuire.

"Our faith traditions teach us that all people are children of God, deserving of love, dignity and equal treatment," said the Rev. Tom Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches. "It would be a blessing if New York were to allow loving, committed gay and lesbian couples to be married."

Just 14 percent of New Yorkers said gay marriage should be the top priority of the Legislature, which also is wrestling with fiscal issues, according to the Siena College poll released Monday. But 55 percent of those polled support a same-sex marriage law, compared with the 40 percent opposed. That's down from a high of 58 percent in April. The poll questioned 819 registered voters June 5-8 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Republican senators, however, are doing extensive polling within their districts and some said several upstate districts still strongly oppose same-sex marriage. Cuomo acknowledged that Monday but said statewide polls show support and the Senate should represent the whole state.

Republicans who vote for gay marriage also will lose the often-critical endorsement of the Conservative Party, said party chairman Michael Long.

Original story from Monday:

Legalizing gay marriage in New York came within two votes of those needed for passage Monday as Gov. Andrew Cuomo rallied most Democrats and coaxed one Republican vote in the Senate.

Twenty-nine of 30 Democrats in the state Senate were joined by Republican Sen. James Alesi of Monroe County to support a gay marriage bill to be introduced in the last five days of the legislative session.

That brings the estimated support to 30 votes for the measure in the 62-seat chamber, two votes shy of passage. The Democrat-led Assembly and the Democratic governor already strongly support the measure, which was defeated in 2009.

Alesi, however, said he knew of no Republican colleagues who will join him and received no guarantee the measure will pass. Republican senators said they see no change in votes for the measure expected to be discussed in closed-door session Tuesday or Wednesday.

Whether Monday's well-orchestrated announcement built momentum or was political cover for Democrats whose 2009 defeated vote hurt the national effort will be played out in the next few days in Albany.

An advocacy group organized under Cuomo decided Monday afternoon to authorize the Democrat to submit the bill to the Legislature as early as Monday night. Cuomo said that bill will be about the same as the one defeated two years ago, but specific details of the latest bill weren't immediately released.

The bill is expected to pass the Democrat-led Assembly easily, as similar measures have in past years. The bill would then have to be introduced in the Republican-led Senate and wend its way through committee, with negotiation of any changes, in time for a vote by June 20, the scheduled end of session.

"Two years ago, I voted against a marriage equality bill, and it was a very anguishing vote for me," Alesi said, adding that he has since apologized to advocates for his vote. "I believe that if you live in America and you expect equality and freedom for yourself that you should extend it to other people."

He still hasn't seen the bill, which he will support as long as it "comes out in a way that doesn't force churches to do something that the churches don't want to do," Alesi said.

Republicans who support same-sex marriage will lose the often critical endorsement of the state Conservative Party, according to chairman Michael Long.

Cuomo, long a supporter of same-sex marriage, called the issue "a matter of principal, not politics." He said he expects that Republicans will support the bill if it gets to the floor. Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos said Republicans in conference will "discuss all the dynamics."

Cuomo pressured GOP lawmakers by noting polls that showed nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage, though one poll recently showed a slight waning of support.

Two of the three Democrats who threw their support behind gay marriage said they did so because the majority of their voters now support the measure. Queens Sens. Joseph Addabbo Jr. and Shirley Huntley said they conducted polls to determine how their constituents felt about the issue.

The third Democrat, Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, said bill sponsor Sen. Thomas Duane helped explain that it was a question "between right and wrong."

"What we are about to do is to redefine what an American family is, and that's a good thing," said Kruger, who is facing charges in what federal prosecutors call a "broad-based bribery racket." The Senate Democrats stripped him of his powerful Finance Committee chairmanship as a result of the accusation. He has said he's eager to fight the charges.

"We are at the doorstep of passing marriage equality to ensure human rights are inalienable rights for all New Yorkers," said Senate Democratic leader John Sampson of Brooklyn, who delivered the three additional votes in his conference. "And while I am not a prophet, I am an eternal optimist - and am confident that we will get the rest of the way."

Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a Bronx minister, said Monday that he remains opposed to the bill. He said it's his calling to work with Republican senators to fight it.