DENVER (AP) — An emotional Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday that he's pulling Colorado lawmakers back to work to resolve a debate over civil unions that ended abruptly without a House vote a day earlier.
Hickenlooper's announcement on the final day of the 2012 regular legislative session was sparked by what he called an "overwhelming need" to discuss civil unions. He choked up and cited a call Tuesday night from someone he knew from his time in the restaurant business who "didn't have the same rights as everyone else."
He said the caller asked, "If not now when?"
His decision represents arguably his boldest political move since he took office in January 2011. Although praised for orchestrating compromises, they typically happen out of public view.
Hickenlooper said he'd provide more details regarding the special session agenda Thursday, but it could include several other bills that died because they were not voted on before a Tuesday deadline.
Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty would not say whether civil unions would get a vote in the House if it reaches there, raising questions about whether the outcome of the bill would be any different in a special session. A start date has not been set, and it's unknown how long the session would last.
McNulty said lawmakers would try to finish as much work as possible before adjourning Wednesday. He repeatedly referred to civil unions as gay marriage, even though supporters say the bill does not grant same-sex couples all the rights married couples have. Voters also banned gay marriage in 2006.
"If the governor chooses to take up gay marriage as part of his special session call, then the governor has the right to do that," he said.
The civil unions bill died Tuesday after Republican leaders halted floor work when Democrats in the minority tried to force a debate and a vote on the bill. Republicans control the House on a 33-32 margin, but Democrats said they had enough support to pass civil unions.
The bill was one of several that needed to have initial approval before day's end Tuesday. Other bills included an overhaul of school discipline policies and setting a standard for what's considered too high on marijuana to drive. A water projects bill worth millions of dollars was also left pending.
Lawmakers learned of the special session as they returned from lunch Wednesday. Some of them clasped their hands over their mouths in surprise when they heard.
"It's a shame it came to this," said former Democratic House Leader Sal Pace.
The last Colorado special session happened in 2006 to debate immigration bills. One of the few lawmakers who were in the Legislature then, Republican Rep. Larry Liston, says he'd rather be out of Denver campaigning. He faces a primary election next month.
"I'm ready to go out and see the people on the campaign trail," Liston said. But he added, "I think we're all ready to answer the call and do the people's business."
Colorado's debate came as gay rights are in the national spotlight.
North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday defining marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman and also barring civil unions.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that gay marriage should be legal.
More than a dozen states allow either gay marriage or civil unions. Delaware and Hawaii began allowing civil unions this year.
Hickenlooper concluded his announcement Wednesday by saying that government shouldn't tell churches whom they can marry.
"Everyone deserves the same legal rights in this country," Hickenlooper said. "We are depriving people of their civil rights without reason."
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