Midnight deadline looms for civil unions bill

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DENVER -- After a day of drama and inaction Monday, legislation to recognize same-sex civil unions in Colorado is on the move Tuesday, the last day it can be debated on the House floor in time for a final vote on the measure Wednesday, the last day of the legislative session.

But Republicans are making sure the controversial bill moves slowly.

The House Appropriations Committee, which began hearing bills at 2:30 Tuesday, spent two hours hearing and voting on bills that have no chance of passing before the end of the session on Wednesday, blatantly delaying the vote on civil unions and eating into the time left in the day for it to reach the House floor for a vote before midnight.

The filibuster enraged some Democrats on the committee, four of whom temporarily walked out of the hearing but quickly returned.

Only after amending the bill twice, the panel approved the bill on a 7-6 vote with Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, casting the decisive vote.

With six hours remaining before midnight, the full House convened but Republican leaders are showing no inclination to bring it up, instead filibustering and eating up time with speeches on other items.

A filibuster could kill the civil unions bill, but would probably result in other GOP-sponsored measures dying along with it.

Once the committee report on Senate Bill 2 is read across the desk, Democrats may have to make a procedural motion to introduce the bill for debate on the floor. They'll need at least one Republican to support that motion, and they appear to have that vote.

On Tuesday morning, several hundred supporters of the legislation rallied on the Capitol's west steps just beneath the House chamber, urging Speaker Frank McNulty and Majority Leader Amy Stephens, both of whom oppose civil unions, to allow the measure to be voted on by the full chamber with chants of "Let them vote."

"People across the state are calling for its passage," said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. "I know it can be done. It's just a matter of what happens today. All of Colorado is watching."

Indeed, supporters of the measure have brought serious pressure to bear on McNulty and the House GOP, none more forcefully than the influential editorial boards of the Denver Post and Grand Junction Sentinel, both blasting GOP "obstruction" and demanding that the House Majority allow a vote to take place.

The Post even went so far as to call on Gov. John Hickenlooper to call a special legislative session on civil unions if the measure stalls this week.

And on Tuesday morning, a long line of state lawmakers -- the entire Senate Democratic caucus attended the rally -- and even a few Republicans sounded the same call on the Capitol's steps.

"The notion that there's not enough time is a myth," said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. "What's in question isn't time, but courage."

When pressed on why the bill hasn't moved more quickly through the House, McNulty and other Republican committee chairman have blamed the Democratic-controlled state Senate, where the bill lingered for most of the session before a final vote that sent it to the House.

“They sat on the bill for 110 days and they expect it to rush through the process," McNulty says.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver), told FOX 31 Denver on Monday that he hoped Republicans are not trying to run out the clock.

"Hopefully, it's not games," Ferrandino says. "But we're hearing lots of rumors from Republican leadership that they're going to play lots of games to make sure this doesn't come up for a vote."

Ferrandino, who couldn't attend the rally Tuesday morning, later waved to supporters from the House balcony following the rally and was joined there by Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, whose vote in favor of civil unions last Thursday dramatically propelled the bill out of the House Judiciary Committee, which killed the same measure a year ago.

Following that vote, S.B. 2 cleared the House Finance Committee on Friday, with Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, breaking ranks and voting yes, saving the bill again and sending it to the House Appropriations Committee.

With that hearing now set for Tuesday afternoon, other Republican supporters are making their voices heard.

"That civil unions day is coming," said Mario Nicolais, a GOP attorney and the spokesman for the group Coloradans for Freedom, formed by several prominent conservatives solely for the purpose of highlighting their support for civil unions.

"That day is today. That time is now. It's not a question of one party or another or politics," Nicolais continued. "It's a question of principle and what we stand for in this country.

"I support civil unions not despite my conservative principles, but because of my conservative principles."

If the bill gets to the House floor it's sure to pass with at least five House Republicans voting yes.

Hickenlooper, whose general counsel, Jack Finlaw, an openly gay Republican, spoke at the rally, is confident the process will stay its course.

"The Governor knows there's enough time in this session for Senate Bill 2 to be fully heard in the House," Finlaw said. "And we look forward to that hearing today and we expect that vote today in the House.

"The Governor believes today is an historic day for all Coloradans."

And if Tuesday isn't the day that this landmark legislation advances, LGBT advocates promise that day isn't far off.

"Whether it's today or tomorrow or next year, we will win," Jace Woodrum, a spokesman for the group One Colorado, declared on the west steps.

"Gay and lesbian couples in this state will have full protection under the law. We all know it and everyone in this building knows it."

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