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Originally published Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 12:12 PM

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AP: Gay marriage within reach in Wash. Legislature

The Washington state Legislature is on the verge of having enough support to approve gay marriage, with votes continuing to realign in the state Senate, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

Associated Press

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OLYMPIA, Wash. —

The Washington state Legislature is on the verge of having enough support to approve gay marriage, with votes continuing to realign in the state Senate, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

The AP has reached out to all 49 state senators over the past week and found that more lawmakers are firmly supporting gay marriage than opposing it, by a margin of 21-18. The measure needs 25 votes to pass the Senate.

Five Democrats say they are considering whether to support it, including two who are leaning in favor. A pair of Republicans is among those supporting the proposal, and two first-term GOP members said they were discussing the issue with constituents.

The House is widely expected to have enough support, and Gov. Chris Gregoire publicly endorsed gay marriage for the first time last week.

Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, a gay lawmaker from Seattle who has for years led efforts to approve same-sex marriage, said that he's "50 percent optimistic" it will pass. He noted that he saw a gay civil rights measure he spearheaded lose by one vote in 2005 before it passed by a single vote the following year.

"I can't declare victory," he said. "I don't think we'll know we have the votes until we actually vote."

Of the undecided Democrats, two of them - Sens. Karen Fraser of Olympia and Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell - signaled they would likely support the measure but were not yet willing to commit.

Three members who opposed domestic partnerships just a few years ago - Sens. Brian Hatfield of Raymond, Jim Kastama of Puyallup and Paull Shin of Edmonds - said they were considering supporting gay marriage.

Hatfield said it was an issue he was grappling with because he understands the opinions on both sides. He has become a devoted Christian in recent years but also talks with liberal groups. He said that he was simply "torn" by the debate and the backlash sure to come no matter what his decision is.

"The supporters of the bill determine you're a `hateful bigot' if you vote no, while the opponents question your faith and say you're `turning your back on God' if you vote yes," Hatfield said.

Hatfield and Shin both opposed a domestic partnership law in 2009. Kastama supported the law and said he is now exploring what has happened in states that have approved gay marriage and is hearing arguments from both sides.

The two Republican senators who are now supporting gay marriage - Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Cheryl Pflug of Maple Valley - said the issue was a matter of equality.

"I don't feel diminished when another human being is allowed to exercise the same rights that I enjoy," Pflug said. "I would feel diminished if I voted to deny others the right to exercise those same rights and freedoms."

Two first-term Republicans representing suburban districts - Sens. Joe Fain of Auburn and Andy Hill of Redmond - also left open the possibility of supporting the bill, saying they want to discuss the issue with constituents. They declined to say whether they were leaning in any direction.

Democratic Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island said she wasn't willing to support anything that didn't allow a vote of the people.

Murray said that each undecided lawmaker he has talked with on the issue "has a very difficult personal struggle."

"This isn't a policy debate, or something you can trade a vote for," he said. "It's such a personal decision."

Two Democrats are among the 18 declared "no" votes on the gay marriage proposal. Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, previously supported domestic partnerships but said he wasn't willing to go further.

"I would not support changing the definition of marriage," he said.

The increased collection of support, mirroring shifts in public opinion on gay marriage, is coming 15 years after lawmakers overrode a governor's veto to pass a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Since then, lawmakers have expanded gay rights, including the state's initial domestic partnership law passed in 2007 and the final expansion of that law - so-called "everything but marriage" - in 2009 that was later upheld by voters. Murray said the same-sex marriage bill would be introduced by the end of this week.

Gay marriage is legal in six states.

Some Democratic supporters of gay marriage said they felt a sense of urgency to get gay marriage through the Legislature this year, in case Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna wins in November. McKenna has said he opposes same-sex marriage.

"This is a window of opportunity," Kline said. "For that very reason, it's going to be an all-out push."

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