With a vote to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois looking less likely to happen in the next few days, supporters of marriage equality are looking ahead to the following legislative session as their next best hope.
A Senate committee voted 8-5 late Thursday in favor of a bill that would allow gay marriage. But with key supporters absent, Senate Democrats delayed a full floor vote. The Senate then canceled its Friday schedule, and President John Cullerton said lawmakers are unlikely to return to Springfield before the session ends Jan. 9. New lawmakers will be sworn in that day.
Sen. Heather Steans, the bill's sponsor, said it was a matter of "when, not if" the measure will pass. She said people across Illinois and state lawmakers are changing their minds every day and supporting gay marriage.
"This is never going to be an easy one, but it's only going to get easier," Steans said.
Cullerton said it might be weeks before the bill gets a full Senate vote. His spokeswoman conceded that "the bill needs work," and even Steans suggested working with recalcitrant Republicans to get a bipartisan agreement.
"What's important when we reconvene is that we work to protect and strengthen all Illinois families, and that's what this legislation does," Cullerton said in a statement released by a coalition of supporters.
Hopes were high for a productive end to the 97th General Assembly, with legislation not only on gay marriage but on assault-weapons restrictions and a solution to the $96 billion hole in state retirement-benefit accounts.
Gun curbs advanced, and a pension fix has been proposed in the House, which isn't scheduled to return to Springfield until Sunday, giving Gov. Pat Quinn reason to stay optimistic that his top priority will still get attention.
Democrats hold a 35-24 majority in the Senate, but party members outside Chicago don't always toe the line. Not all are on board with extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, and some key supporters did not attend Thursday's session.
Hoping to ride momentum from the November elections and public encouragement from President Barack Obama, backers were jolted by the postponement.
A gay actor who stars in a popular TV comedy campaigned for the measure in Illinois while religious leaders — including 1,700 clergy, from Catholic to Muslim — united in writing to exhort lawmakers to oppose it.
Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the Illinois Family Institute, told lawmakers the bill was "an attack on our particular religious beliefs" and that it would force churches and other religious institutions to allow their facilities to be used for same-sex marriages.
Steans said that wouldn't be the case, and that she planned to work with Republicans to address some of those concerns.
Supporters said they pressed the matter in the waning days of the General Assembly's session to take advantage of soaring support in the state and nationally. And lame-duck lawmakers theoretically have more freedom to vote without fear of voter backlash.
Even though Democrats will claim a 40-19 advantage in the new session, newcomers will bring more diverse views in a state where southern Illinoisans live closer to Birmingham, Ala., than to Chicago.
The plan comes just 18 months after Illinois recognized civil unions.
If Illinois approves gay marriage, it would become the 10th state in the nation to do so.