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HONOLULU (AP) – The Hawaii Senate approved same-sex civil unions Friday, potentially setting up the measure for final passage as soon as next week.
The Senate passed the bill on an 18-7 vote, moving the bill to the House and signaling that the Senate’s Democratic majority has enough votes to override a potential veto from Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
The measure now advances to the House, which has yet to decide if it will vote on the bill. House leaders say they will take up the bill if they have a veto-proof two-thirds majority but may let it die if they have only a small majority.
“It’s very close,” said Democratic Speaker of the House Calvin Say. “During an election year, this issue is so divisive that it may hurt many of our members.”
The bill would grant gay and straight couples the same rights and benefits the state provides to married couples.
If it passes, Hawaii would become the fifth state to allow civil unions, along with Colorado, Wisconsin, Maryland and Maine. Five other states – Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut – permit same-sex marriage.
Civil union supporters wearing rainbow-colored lei cheered from the Senate gallery when Friday’s vote count was announced, while opponents wearing white shirts and “iVote” buttons quietly walked out.
“I’m very happy. It’s not marriage, but it gives us an opportunity to be recognized as a couple,” Carlos Quintana of Honolulu said after the vote.
The vote follows a rally at the Capitol last weekend attended by thousands of people supporting traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Protesters urged lawmakers to vote down civil unions and promised repercussions during this year’s elections to those who didn’t.
Hawaii’s Legislature almost passed civil unions last year when liberal senators forced a vote on the issue following a tied committee vote. The majority then amended the bill so that civil unions could apply to both homosexual and heterosexual couples.
Because that decision came only one day before the Legislature adjourned for the year, a final vote was delayed until this year to satisfy public notice requirements.
House leaders say they could hold a vote as early as next week. It will be up to the Democratic majority to decide if they’ll vote only if they have enough votes to override a veto, or with a simple majority, Say said.
The House passed last year’s bill but fell one vote short of a two-thirds majority.
Lingle has urged the Legislature to drop the issue but hasn’t said whether she would sign the measure.
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