DENVER -- Gay couples who watched as Colorado lawmakers rejected a civil unions measure are taking comfort in the bill sponsor's mantra: It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when civil unions become law.
The most emotional issue -- some call it divisive -- at the Legislature came to an end late Monday in front of hundreds of observers at the Capitol. It was the second time within a week the bill failed. The first was after a Republican filibuster, the second during a special session.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had said the second go-around was needed to address a "fundamental question of fairness and civil rights" on whether gay couples deserve rights similar to married couples.
The bill's demise during special session was expected by Democrats, who have begun using the issue as a rallying cry to topple Republicans in the November elections. Republicans assigned the bill to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which voted 5-4 along party lines to kill the measure.
"My family is the same as every one of yours," said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the Democrats' leader in the House and a gay lawmaker who co-sponsored the civil unions bill, moments before it was defeated.
Though the ending came as no surprise, the lead-up was emotional. Two Democratic lawmakers choked up before their votes. In the audience, Marq Shafer, 31, put his hand on his partner Cody Shafer's shoulder and nervously rubbed Cody's wedding ring.
Republican Rep. Don Coram, whose son is gay, cited his reasons for voting against the measure while his wife, Dianna Coram, wiped away tears in the audience. Coram said civil unions are too similar to same-sex marriage, which Colorado voters banned in 2006. He blasted Democrats, accusing them of bringing up the issue to try to gain votes.
"The gay community is being used as a political pawn," he said.
Ferrandino rejected that argument, saying Democrats were pursuing the issue to grant gay families equal rights. He said he was optimistic that civil unions would pass eventually, and it was a matter of when, not if.
"I will tell you that `when' keeps getting closer and closer and this will happen soon," he said.
Ferrandino said his party would "work hard to make sure the public understands what happened, the games that were played."
Republicans hold a 33-32 advantage in the House, but there was enough support for the civil unions bill to pass last week after three different committees gave their approval. The Senate had already passed the measure.
Democrats tried to force Republicans who control the calendar to bring up the bill for debate. But it became clear Republicans were filibustering by unnecessarily talking at length about other bills.
Republicans then halted work for hours, killing the bill and several others that needed a vote before a key deadline.
The regular session adjourned Wednesday, the same day an emotional Hickenlooper announced his intent to call a special session to take up civil unions and other bills that died.
More than a dozen states allow either gay marriage or civil unions, including several that moved to pass such laws this year.
The debate in Colorado is playing out at a time when President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to publicly endorse gay marriage. But North Carolina voters last week approved a constitutional amendment that bars civil unions and defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
Earlier Monday, hundreds of supporters wearing red and waving signs greeted lawmakers returning to Denver for the special session.
Wiley Sherer, who was selling buttons that read "Ignorance is forgivable. Pride in ignorance never is," said she believes civil unions are "going to happen eventually."
Conservatives who argued that civil unions undermine traditional marriage portrayed the special session as a waste of taxpayer money.
After the vote, Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said the question was not worth calling lawmakers back to Denver at taxpayer expense.
"We have more important things to worry about," McNulty said.
Civil unions would grant gay couples some rights that married couples have, including letting partners make medical decisions for each other. The protections also would enhance parental and inheritance rights.
Marq and Cody Shafer, who were married in Iowa, hugged after the vote and said civil unions in Colorado would protect their hospital visitation rights.
"We're at the mercy of a hospital in this state to say if I can be in his room when he's sick," said Cody Shafer, 33. "I'm asked to leave. I have no legal ground to stand on to go and be at his side. Our marriage isn't recognized."