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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York is close to becoming the first state to pass legislation making gay marriage legal but, like many political issues in the state capital Albany, it has fallen victim to a power struggle.
Democrats won a majority in the upper house Senate for the first time in more than 40 years in the November 4 election, but three Democratic senators refuse to back fellow Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith as majority leader without concessions.
The Republicans could regain their power in the Senate if the three Democratic senators, who include longtime gay marriage opponent Sen. Ruben Diaz, opt to vote with them.
"I will not give my vote to a leader that will bring gay marriage to the state," Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, said in an interview. "Have a voter referendum. Let the people decide."
Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only states that allow same-sex marriage as a result of court rulings. No state legislature has instituted gay marriage into law.
After Californian voters passed Prop 8 on November 4 reversing the state's Supreme Court decision in May to allow same-sex marriage, the next battleground state for gay marriage is expected to be New York. The New York Assembly passed a marriage bill in June 2007 but the Senate has yet to act.
The Senate power struggle has delayed appointment of a majority leader until January and upset gay rights activists who believed gay marriage would be legalized once Democrats took control of the Senate.
Albany has a reputation for bickering and power struggles, which critics say was demonstrated when the legislature last week rejected Democratic Gov. David Paterson's emergency budget cuts for many reasons, including the Senate leadership battle.
Gay marriage has broad support in the Democratic-controlled lower house, the State Assembly, where it passed in a vote of 85 to 61 last year. It was never put to a vote in the upper house when the Republicans controlled the Senate.
Paterson, who in May ordered all state agencies to recognize out-of-state gay marriages, has said he would sign such a bill into law.
"It's going to happen. It's not an if, it's a when," said Sen. Tom Duane, a same-sex marriage campaigner.
Gay rights groups say they are still hopeful New York and New Jersey legislatures will pass gay marriage bills as soon as 2009 and are unfazed by the New York State Senate leadership struggle.
"When the dust settles, and we do consider it dust, there will be a Democratic majority leader who will put forth a marriage equality bill," said Marty Rouse, national field director for Human Rights Campaign, a major U.S. gay rights group.
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, said the gay marriage issue had not proven to be toxic as none of the Republican assembly members who voted for same-sex marriage in 2007 were voted out of office.
But Duane Motley, executive director of the Christian lobby group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said that even if Smith is named majority leader, passage of gay marriage is by no means assured.
"It's not a done deal," he said. "The rank and file people of New York State are not in favor of homosexual marriages."
Smith has not said publicly how he will handle the gay marriage issue if he is made majority leader at the next legislative session in January.
"Rebuilding New York's economy comes first," Smith said in a statement. "Beyond that, I will govern by the consensus of my conference and allow legislation from either party to be openly debated on the Senate floor."
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Anthony Boadle