BOSTON (Reuters) - The Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill late on Thursday that would legalize gay marriage, but supporters failed to get enough votes to override a veto threat from the governor.
Lawmakers in the Democratic-led House voted 95-52 in support of the measure, which had already passed the state Senate by a 26-4 vote. Advocates were five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The bill, which faces a largely procedural vote on Friday before heading to the desk of Republican Governor Jim Douglas, would have made Vermont the third U.S. state, after Connecticut and Massachusetts, to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
California briefly recognized gay marriage until voters banned it in a referendum last year.
Lawmakers in New Hampshire and Maine are also considering bills to allow gay marriage, putting New England at the heart of a divisive national debate over the issue.
In a debate that stretched nearly four hours, lawmakers who backed the bill in Vermont said they were completing a process that began in 2000 when the state became the first in the country to allow full civil unions for same-sex couples.
"The promise of full equality of the marriage statutes that we held out in 2000 by creating civil unions, we believe, has not been fulfilled," Democratic Representative William Lippert, an openly gay lawmaker, told the session.
Hundreds of supporters and opponents of the bill rallied outside the State House for much of the afternoon and filled the gallery during the debate.
Douglas said last week he would veto the bill if it reached his desk, calling on lawmakers to focus on the economy instead. Groups from outside Vermont opposed to gay marriage campaigned heavily in the state against the measure.
Many voters received automated telephone calls urging them to tell their representatives to oppose the bill.
Several lawmakers who voted against Vermont's bill on Thursday apologized to gay and lesbian friends and colleagues but said they were respecting the wishes of constituents.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which helped to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut, has set a goal of expanding gay marriage to New England's four other states by 2012. Three of those -- Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire -- already offer same-sex couples some form of legal recognition.
Forty-four states have laws explicitly prohibiting same-sex marriage, including 29 with constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman.
Editing by Peter Cooney