Two House committees voted Tuesday evening to send to the floor Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to legalize same-sex marriage, buoying the hopes of activists who saw the move as a sign that House leaders think they have the votes to pass it.
The two panels — Judiciary and Health & Government Operations — approved the bill, 25-18, in a hastily convened voting session. Del. Sam Arora, a Democrat from Montgomery County, abstained.
Del. Kumar Barve, a key lieutenant of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, said afterward he was "cautiously confident." He added: "I think we'll get there, but I can't guarantee anything."
The full House is expected to debate the bill Wednesday.
Supporters have predicted that the bill would move to the floor only if House leaders thought they could win there. Last year the bill passed in the Senate but was pulled in the House when supporters concluded that they were a few votes shy.
Should the measure win approval, Maryland would become the eighth state to allow same-sex marriages. Washington state's governor signed a gay marriage bill Monday. New York passed a similar bill last year.
"The word of the moment is momentum," said Lisa M. Polyak, a gay-rights activist who has long fought for passage. "We hope the rest of the House will take notice that momentum is in the favor of equality and we invite them to join us."
Opponents said it would be wrong to approve the measure. "Marriage has been between a man and a woman since the beginning of time," said Del. Michael J. Hough, a Western Maryland Republican. "This is a radical bill."
Another opponent, Republican Del. Don Dwyer of Anne Arundel County, said: "This is the most important vote we will take in our lifetime. ... Dig deep and really concentrate on the vote you are about to take."
The Civil Marriage Protection Act is moving with lightning speed by Annapolis standards. It was subject to a nearly 11-hour hearing on Friday, and word spread late Tuesday afternoon that the committees would vote.
Supporters beat back five unfriendly amendments. One came from Del. Tiffany Alston, a Prince George's Democrat, who unsuccessfully sought to delay the measure's effective date to be sure there would be enough time for a referendum before it could go into effect.
Alston, who voted against the bill, had a pointed back-and-forth with Baltimore Del. Keiffer Mitchell, who supports the bill. Both lawmakers are black, and took opposite views on whether the issue is a civil rights measure.
A surprise "yes" vote Tuesday was that of Anne Arundel County Del. Robert Costa, thus far the only House Republican to support the bill. Another Republican, Del. Patrick Hogan, says he is still undecided.
Costa said that he personally opposes same-sex marriage but believes that government should not be involved in determining how two people chose to live. "This is between an individual and God," he said.
Baltimore Del. Jill Carter co-sponsored the bill last year but not this time. She said her "enthusiasm" for the measure has "diminished," but she voted for it in committee Tuesday. Carter said she wished supporters would put as much effort into reducing crime and poverty in Baltimore.
The two committees voted as one 45-member super-panel, with a simple majority needed for approval. Last year the bill was referred only to the Judiciary Committee. A majority voted for the bill last year, but support has since diminished there.
Eleven of the 21 members present from Judiciary voted against the bill Tuesday — meaning it did not have enough support for passage. But on the health committee, 15 of the 23 members voted yes.