The House of Delegates is set to debate next week whether to legalize gay marriage, after a sharply divided committee voted Friday in favor of the plan.
The measure, which has already cleared the Senate, lost the support of a co-sponsor but was saved from defeat by the committee chairman -- who has long opposed gay marriage.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. did not explain why he voted to advance the bill, but House aides said the Prince George's County Democrat wanted to see it moved to the 141-member chamber for a full debate.
Delegates are bracing for a discussion that could start as soon as Tuesday and span several days. The bill would repeal the provision in Maryland law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, which would allow the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
The 12-10 vote by the House Judiciary Committee came at the end of a week of fits and starts -- and high drama, as several of the original 59 co-sponsors indicated they were having second thoughts.
The committee was to vote Tuesday, but two co-sponsors went missing. Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who supports same-sex marriage, said she withheld her vote that day to focus attention on city education funding and her own family law bill.
Del. Tiffany T. Alston said she needed more time to think. The Prince George's County Democrat said she was weighing her personal belief in the right of gay couples to marry against the opposition of her church and the people she represents.
On Friday, she voted against the bill, saying, "For my constituents, no."
Before the final vote, Alston attempted to amend the bill to establish civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. The effort drew praise from Republicans on the committee, but criticism from her fellow Democrats. It failed by a single vote, one of five amendments to be batted down.
Alston, a freshman lawmaker, lashed out at House leadership, saying she had "received directions" not to try to amend the bill or vote against it.
Senate leaders have made it clear to House leaders that changing the bill as it passed in the Senate last week would doom it to eventual defeat in the upper chamber -- a complication Speaker Michael E. Busch explained to fellow House Democrats at a meeting Tuesday morning.
In committee Friday, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais said leadership "allowed everyone to reach their decisions."
"No one's arm has been twisted," the Montgomery County Democrat said, prompting the committee's Republicans to erupt in laughter.
Del. Susan K. McComas, a Harford County Republican, called Alston "a profile in courage" for speaking out.
The bill's ride through the House already has been rockier than its 25-21 passage in the Senate last week, raising questions about its prospects in the full chamber.
One of the co-sponsors who expressed hesitation over the bill this week indicated Friday that he will support it so that voters can ultimately decide the issue. Del. Sam Arora voted in committee to send the bill to the floor.
"As the vote drew nearer, I wrestled with this issue in a way I never had before, which led me to realize that I had some concerns about the bill," the Montgomery County Democrat said in a statement. He did not specify what those concerns are.
"While I personally believe that Maryland should extend civil rights to same-sex couples through civil unions, I have come to the conclusion that this issue has such impact on the people of Maryland that they should have a direct say."
Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. Opponents could then gather the roughly 55,000 signatures needed to petition the new law to referendum, where voters in the 2012 presidential election will decide whether to repeal it or leave it on the books.