Lobbyists gather outside the Senate Chamber during a session of the New York state Senate at the Capitol.
Gay couples watched anxiously as a closely divided New York Senate started, then stalled, down the path toward a vote on whether to legalize gay marriage, a pivotal decision with national consequences that looked more and more likely to rest in the hands of just two Republicans from conservative upstate areas.
One, Sen. Stephen Saland of the Hudson Valley's Poughkeepsie, is a widely respected veteran legislator who authored hundreds of crime and education laws. The other crucial swing vote is rookie Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, one of the young breed of Republicans who rode the 2010 GOP tide in a district where even many of the Democrats are conservative.
They are the two clearly undecided votes among Senate Republicans who defeated a gay marriage bill in 2009, but who may get another chance within days.
Gays and lesbians watching the every move of New York lawmakers are in the midst of a nail biter. It's a political issue that is deeply personal for many New Yorkers who are cycling through anxiety, excitement and frustration.
Albany resident Cynthia Stallard knows when and where she will marry her partner: in September in Brooklyn. Her frustration comes from not knowing whether New York will recognize their vows.
"We're going to have the reception and ceremony here no matter what, whether it's symbolic or it's legal, it will still be in Brooklyn," said Stallard, a 25-year-old attorney. "But it would be great for it to be legal."
"My head is telling me to be careful and not get too excited because if it doesn't work out the way I want it to, I'm going to be crushed," she said.
Ron Zacchi of Marriage Equality USA came to the state Capitol on Wednesday to track the bill — or at least try to — as its fate was discussed in private. Advocates around the country were doing the same from a distance as they attempted to find out whether New York will become the sixth and largest state where gay marriage is legal. Social media sites buzzed with meeting-by-meeting updates.
"It creates a lot of anxiety while you're waiting to find out if you'll be granted the right that your family, friends and even your own parents took for granted," Zacchi said.
The Democrat-led Assembly passed the bill Wednesday night and Republicans met early Thursday to discuss it behind closed doors. But political considerations got in the way and suddenly gay marriage was linked to a tax cap and rent control. Now, a vote may not come until next week, if at all.
The unprecedented pressure has been clear this week: GOP Sen. Owen Johnson, at 81, spryly ducked under a TV camera's view and Republican Sen. Roy McDonald, a daring U.S. Army scout in the Vietnam War who flipped to support gay marriage, blurted into reporters' tape recorders: "Well, (expletive) it, I don't care what you think," he said of critics.
While a few senators have teased they could switch sides and use the attention to promote their own measures, the 67-year-old Saland has not tipped his hand and has stayed, in his words, "under the radar."
His colleagues say Saland likely spent years in contemplation of what will be one of the most difficult votes in his 21 years. Seemingly incapable of a short snappy sound bite on which blogs feed, Saland will more likely offer a treatise.
Grisanti, 46, has had just a few months to consider what will likely be the most difficult vote of his career.
"It's something I think about almost every second of every day in the last couple weeks," he told his hometown Buffalo News. "If I take the Catholic out of me, which is hard to do, then absolutely they should have these rights ... it has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with my own personal beliefs."
Although 29 of 30 Democrats have publicly committed to the bill that Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced and lobbied hard for, so many senators haven't commented or offered up evasive responses that a floor vote could pass or fail by nearly a half-dozen votes. The Republican conference, with whom the Democratic governor has been meeting privately, has steadfastly refused to do even an internal tally.
"I'm holding my breath," said Rea Carey, Washington-based executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "It's both the nervousness and the excitement."
"The potential scale of what can happen for equality and freedom with this vote is breathtaking," she said.
Libby Post, a veteran activist in Albany, choked up while talking about the Assembly passage of the bill Wednesday night. She said she and her partner of 16 years, who have a grown son, hope to get married in New York by the end of this year in their synagogue if the state legalizes gay marriage.
"After 16 years together and raising a 25-year old son, isn't it time?" she asked.
On Thursday, the first Republican to change his position, Sen. James Alesi of an upstate district around Rochester, was confronted by the Rev. Duane Motley, a conservative lobbyist fighting gay marriage.
"I am not looking for a way out!" Alesi said a moment later. "I am voting 'yes' for marriage," he said striding away. To a reporter's question, he shot back, "You heard me!"
A steady drumbeat of pressure from celebrities and athletes was intensified Thursday by the latest lobbying visit by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Now an independent, he remains a major campaign funder of Senate Republicans and he met with McDonald, Grisanti and others on what he lists as a top priority.
"I could see how personal this was on them and their families, how carefully they were listening to both their parents and their children, how earnestly they are struggling to find the right answer," Bloomberg said.
McDonald, from rural Saratoga County, knows a vote for gay marriage could cost him his job. But he said he's listened to his grandchildren.
"You get to the point in your life where everything isn't black and white and good and bad, and you try to do the right thing," McDonald said. "I've struggled over this."