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POWER PLAYER Paiva Weed is in the home stretch of her political career.
It was a lopsided vote.

The Rhode Island House of Repre-sentatives approved same-sex marriage by a 51-19 margin last week — thrilling openly gay Speaker Gordon Fox and a small army of advocates who had been pushing for the legislation for some 16 years.

But the considerable enthusiasm in the House chamber that night was tempered by a sober reflection on the bill's Senate prospects.

Before the lower house even cast its historic vote, the Providence Journal quoted Senator Michael McCaffrey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in no particular hurry to hold hearings on the matter.

"Sometime in the spring," said McCaffrey, who opposes same-sex nuptials. "Obviously there are more important things to worry about than gay marriage in the state of Rhode Island right now."

And while Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who is also opposed, offered Fox congratulations after the vote, it was a cool commendation; no fierce urgency of now in the upper house.

Indeed, however powerful the momentum surrounding Rhode Island's most important piece of social legislation in years, the ultimate fate of the bill is uncertain. The Senate leadership has promised an up-or-down vote in the Judiciary Committee, but nothing more. And a Providence Phoenix vote count shows the full chamber is split right down the middle.

This will be a close, contentious fight. Here's who and what to look for:


THE PRESIDENT

Rhode Island is the only New England state that hasn't legalized same-sex marriage. And no one has more power over whether the state will join the club than Paiva Weed, a cagey Newport Democrat in the home stretch of her political career.

The Senate president has made her opposition to gay nuptials clear. But she's created what looks like a deliberate ambiguity over the final disposition of the bill. Case in point: her decision to appoint a Judiciary Committee that looks split down the middle on the issue — 5-5.

Insiders speculate that she'll use that ambiguity to extract concessions on other matters from Speaker Fox. Paiva Weed, though, will have to consider questions not just of power politics, but of legacy.

Blatant horse trading could look unseemly, given all the talk of civil rights and religious principles animating the debate.

And in the long run, the Senate president will have to decide whether she wants to be remembered as a principled defender of traditional marriage or a leader who put aside her personal beliefs to allow for the steady march of history.


THE COMMITTEE

Gay marriage legislation has to make it through the 10-member Judiciary Committee if it's to land on the floor for a final vote. But parsing out who on the committee is in favor of the legislation and who is opposed is a bit of a mug's game. Surely, observers say, the Senate president has appointed a committee she can bend to her will.

Consider the line-up.

Paiva Weed has put four solid "yes" votes on the panel: Donna Nesselbush, an openly gay Pawtucket Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, Erin Lynch (D-Warwick), Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield), and Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown). A fifth member, Providence Democrat Paul Jabour, has wavered on gay marriage, but says he'll vote "yes" in committee so the full Senate can decide the matter.

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