In a sign of the tough road ahead for same-sex marriage legislation in Maryland, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Monday that he would assign this year’s bill to two committees instead of one, a procedural change that could increase the measure’s chances of passage.
Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the decision would allow more delegates to closely examine the controversial measure, which died unexpectedly on the House floor last year after narrowly passing the Senate.
But critics said the move suggests the votes are not there this year to advance the bill from the Judiciary Committee, the House panel that approved it last year, to the full chamber.
At times in the past, when bills have been “jointly referred” to two committees, House leaders have used a majority vote from just one panel as justification to send legislation to the floor. House rules are largely silent on such situations but grant the speaker considerable leeway on committee assignments.
“This issue is way too important to be playing games with,” House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert), an opponent of same-sex marriage, said upon learning of Busch’s decision. “I guess it shows a great lack of confidence in the Judiciary Committee. I think that committee is capable of doing the job.”
Busch, who supports the bill, said it makes sense to have the Health and Government Operations Committee examine it as well, given that panel’s history of weighing civil rights measures. Aides have acknowledged that support for the same-sex marriage bill appears stronger on that panel.
“I think it clearly falls under the jurisdiction of both committees,” Busch said Monday, adding that the real fight this year again will be focused on the full House. “Whether it’s assigned to one committee, two committees or three committees, it doesn’t change the dynamic of what needs to be accomplished if the bill is going to be passed.”
After last year’s failure on the House floor, bill supporters vowed a different outcome this session upon enlisting Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) as the lead sponsor in July. But the 90-day session began last week without any new public commitments of support from lawmakers.
“Our chances are strong this year with the support of the governor, but there are no guarantees, and there’s a lot of work ahead,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is gay and is a leading advocate for the bill. “It’s going to be as hard-fought as last year.”
The legislation proved to be a tough sell last year with African American lawmakers from Prince George’s County, who cited church opposition, and with more-conservative Democrats from Southern Maryland and the Baltimore suburbs.
No Republican lawmakers in the House voiced support for the bill, which received only one GOP vote in the Senate.
In an interview Monday, O’Malley said he remains “hopeful and optimistic” that a bill will pass this session and said he has been focused on building support among a relatively small group of delegates who were not willing to vote for the bill last year.
Some of those lawmakers remain concerned about whether there are sufficient protections for religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage, he said.
O’Malley plans to formally introduce the bill next week.
“There’s probably 15 to 20 delegates who, to some degree, are supportive of a bill that protects religious freedoms and marital rights equally,” he said. “We have been having conversations all through the course of the year.”
As in past years, the House debate will start on the committee level.
Last year — and in three previous sessions — Busch assigned same-sex marriage legislation to the Judiciary Committee.
The panel sent the bill to the House floor with a favorable recommendation, but only after its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), provided the deciding vote. Vallario rarely votes during committee sessions and has long been on record as opposed to gay nuptials.
It’s unclear whether Vallario is willing to cast the same vote again, and another Judiciary member who voted for the bill last year, Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery), has not committed to supporting the legislation this year — factors that could leave the bill short of a majority on the 22-member committee.
Arora said he is waiting to see the specifics of the bill that O’Malley puts forward.
“I will consider the bill when I see it,” he said. “I can’t comment on hypotheticals.”
In media interviews last week, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said his chamber will take up the same-sex marriage legislation early in the session, even as its fate in the House remains unclear.
Last year, the bill passed 25 to 21 in the Senate, which traditionally has been the more conservative on social policy. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.
“There will be 25 votes again in favor of the bill, so [Miller’s] desire and mine is to move as quickly as possible,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is gay and is a leading same-sex marriage advocate in his chamber.