Legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians reached the floor of the Washington Senate yesterday for the first time in...

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OLYMPIA — Legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians reached the floor of the Washington Senate yesterday for the first time in history, but fell one vote short of becoming law.

House Bill 1515, which has been around in some form for at least a quarter-century, lost 25-24 in a largely partisan split. Two conservative Democratic senators, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, Mason County, joined all 23 Republicans to defeat the bill.

State law now bans discrimination by race, sex, religion, national origin, marital status and other categories. The bill, which had passed the House, would have added sexual orientation to that list.

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Opponents called the bill a steppingstone that, once enacted, could be used to sue for gay marriage. Others said they would be condoning homosexuality by voting yes.

“I believe homosexuality is wrong,” Hargrove said. “Therefore, I cannot give governmental protection of that behavior.”

Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the gay lawmaker who has been sponsoring the bill for a decade, predicted his side would prevail in the long run.

“We didn’t win today, but we will be back and we will win,” he said, choking with emotion.

Equal Rights Washington, a group that lobbied in favor of the bill, said it plans to run radio and television ads as soon as next week attacking Republican Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, for voting against the measure.

“We want to make sure [voters] know Bill Finkbeiner voted against House Bill 1515 and for discrimination,” said George Cheung, executive director of the group.

The group is considering running ads against other Republican senators, including Senate Republican Floor Leader Luke Esser, R-Bellevue. As a member of the House in the early 1990s, Finkbeiner voted in favor of similar legislation.

Finkbeiner yesterday said he wasn’t worried about a backlash. “I think I represent my district well. I’m going to keep doing what I think is right,” he said.

As for his vote in favor of the measure in the early 1990s, Finkbeiner said: “That was 12 years ago.”

Suburban voters

Murray argues that Senate Republicans have been locked up by the party’s right wing and are at risk of losing suburban voters. “The suburbs are socially moderate,” he said. “The Republican Party has quite the challenge.”

Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said suburban voters care more about other issues: “I think the Democrats will have a far bigger backlash for raising taxes than Republicans [have] for opposing this legislation.”

Democrats in the House and Senate are crafting a $26 billion budget expected to include a tax package that would bring in around $480 million over the next two years.

Prior to yesterday’s vote, supporters of the gay-rights legislation thought they had their best shot in years to get the bill passed because Democrats control the House, Senate and Governor’s Office.

The bill passed the House in February by its largest margin ever, including several Republican votes. Gov. Christine Gregoire, who actively recruited votes in the Senate, had said she would sign it.

Supporters had hoped that if they could get the bill to the Senate floor, enough moderate Republicans would break ranks with their caucus to pass the legislation. Republicans, in previous years, had been able, with the help of conservative Democrats, to use procedural moves to keep the legislation from coming to the floor for a vote.

Yesterday, however, Sheldon briefly sided with his caucus and gave them the votes needed to bring the bill to the floor for the first time.

Attentive audience

When the final floor debate started, the Democratic wing of the Senate chamber quickly filled up with House members, legislative aides and several of Gregoire’s top advisers to watch the discussion that lasted more than an hour.

Murray anxiously paced back and forth, arms crossed and head down, keeping mostly to himself and showing little emotion.

House Bill 1515 “is a steppingstone, and we all know that, for … the state and the Supreme Court to consider gay marriage,” argued Sen. Joyce Mulliken, R-Ephrata.

Democratic supporters argued that the bill had nothing to do with gay marriage.

“The issue is, do we want to be a state that condones discrimination, or a state that says no to discrimination,” Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, said. “There’s no just reason to vote against this bill.”

Hargrove was an expected exception to the party-line vote, standing up early in the debate to explain his opposition. “I have nothing against anybody who participates in this behavior,” he said. “This issue is whether I believe the behavior is right or wrong.”

The big question mark was Sheldon, who often votes with Republicans but sometimes stays with his party. When Sheldon, midway through the debate, announced he was going to vote no, saying he was representing the position of most people in his district, the fight was effectively over.

Afterward, Democratic supporters were in tears, passing around boxes of tissue as they consoled each other. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and many other prominent lawmakers gathered for an emotional news conference.

“Today … the Senate Republicans showed their true colors,” said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines. “They voted against equality and fair treatment and for discrimination. As an openly gay legislator, I know that citizens in the suburbs won’t stand for discrimination.”

Rep. Jim Moeller, a gay House member from Vancouver, Clark County, said after the vote he visited the tree planted a decade ago for the late Cal Anderson, the state’s first openly gay legislator who championed the legislation until he died in 1995.

Moeller said he took comfort in the fact that the tree is budding and growing. “There will be another spring, and there will be another vote,” he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882