ST. PAUL — A proposal to allow gay weddings in Minnesota survived several moves by Senate Republicans Wednesday to block it, an early signal the measure likely has enough votes to pass on the floor.
Both on the Senate floor and in a Rules Committee meeting, Democrats who control the chamber defeated a series of Republican motions to postpone its progress. Republicans said they were simply seeking more information about whether it would cost tax money to allow gay couples to marry — in court costs, state employee benefits and other areas.
While the votes were procedural, Republicans portrayed a final floor vote as a functional vote on gay marriage. That motion, which adds the bill to a long list of bills awaiting action on the Senate floor, passed 35-31. One Republican senator joined all but four of the chamber's Democrats to keep the bill moving.
Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, sided with Democrats after previously revealing he supports legalizing gay marriage. The Democrats who went against the majority of their party all represent largely rural districts where last fall's election results, as well as more recent polls, show support for legalizing gay marriage is considerably lower than in the Twin Cities area.
Those Democrats were Kent Eken of Twin Valley, Lyle Koenen of Clara City, Dan Sparks of Austin and LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer.
While the bill survived its first challenge in the full Senate, that's no guarantee of its ultimate passage there. At least one senator who sided with fellow Democrats, Rod Skoe of Clearbrook, said he did so out of respect for traditional procedure and didn't know if he'd vote for the bill on final passage.
"I'm undecided and even if I wasn't, I wouldn't say yet," said Skoe, whose district covers a large portion of northwest Minnesota.
The bill also has to get through the House, where its opponents have said they see a better chance to defeat it. Senators aren't up for reelection until 2016, while House members face voters again in 2014.
House and Senate policy committees approved the gay marriage bill Tuesday on party line votes. Backers have said a final floor vote wouldn't come until later this spring, after both chambers have passed the state budget.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans produced a document they said shows that authorizing gay marriage could cost the state's insurance fund over $600,000 a year to provide coverage to spouses of gay state employees. They questioned whether it could also increase court costs or have other ramifications on state spending, and said the bill should be reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees spending.
"I think it's going to cost the state of Minnesota a bunch of money," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. "I think that impact is going to be significant. If I'm wrong, so be it."
But Sen. Dick Cohen, the St. Paul Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, said any costs would be tough to estimate and likely not very high. He said his committee has rarely viewed the fiscal impact of judicial policy changes.
Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign a gay marriage bill if the House and Senate pass it. Gay weddings would be allowed starting Aug. 1 under the current proposal.