HONOLULU - The drive to make Hawaii the fifth state in the country to allow same-sex civil unions is on the verge of failing, despite support from most state lawmakers.
Senate leaders had planned a vote before the full Senate as early as Tuesday, but deep divisions have emerged over whether Democrats should take an extraordinary legislative step to revive the measure after a tie committee vote.
A tie vote in committee usually is enough to kill a measure, but the bill could advance under a rarely used provision of the Hawaii Constitution if more than one-third of senators approve.
The Democratic leadership wants more than half the Senate to agree to put the bill before the full Senate. Some rank-and-file senators who support the bill, however, are unwilling to circumvent the normal legislative process.
The measure already has passed the Hawaii House.
Lawmakers' hesitation comes after more than 6,000 opponents, most of them from religious groups, rallied against the legislation Feb. 22 at the state Capitol. Civil union supporters planned their own event at the Capitol on Saturday.
"I'm hopeful in the end, the majority can come together and reach a consensus," said Majority Leader Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kauai-Niihau, who supports civil unions.
If the bill doesn't come out of committee, the issue may not come up again until near the end of this year's legislative session in May, or lawmakers could decide to drop the issue entirely.
Legislators could also compromise by approving a watered-down version of civil unions that affirms gay partnerships but reserves some marital rights for heterosexual couples only. That version would permit same-sex couples or family members to enter into a relationship that provides hospital visitation, inheritance and auto insurance benefits but denies adoption and other parental rights. Additional rights such as health and tax benefits could be added.
Sen. Will Espero, who suggested the amendment and would vote against the current civil unions bill, said the compromise means opponents couldn't argue that civil unions are the same as marriage.
"There's not a sense of rushing and immediacy. We want to do it properly and in a manner we can all get behind," said Espero, a Democrat. "We understand how sensitive the issue is."
Other senators have said amending the bill would ruin its chances of passage because that would open a new round of negotiations in committee.
A compromise also may be untenable to the gay community, said Alan Spector, co-chair of the Family Equality Coalition.
"How does one compromise on equality and civil rights? We're being asked to accept less than equality," Spector said.
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has not said whether she would veto the bill if it reaches her desk.
Nearly 70 percent of Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 granting the state Legislature the power to reserve marriage for couples of one man and one woman.
Only two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, allow gay marriage, while Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire allow civil unions. California, Oregon and Washington allow same-sex couples to enter into domestic partnerships.