OLYMPIA, Wash (Reuters) - A bill to legalize gay marriage in Washington now has enough votes to pass the state legislature, a lawmaker who sponsored the measure said on Monday, as the state moved closer to becoming the nation's seventh to legalize same-sex unions.
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray said supporters had secured the 25 votes needed in the state Senate to pass the bipartisan measure, which is being debated in a legislative committee and will likely come to a final vote next month.
Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, announced earlier this month that she would support the legislation, while the state House version already has enough votes to pass.
"I'm hopeful we'll pick up even more (votes) now," Murray said, referring to the handful of lawmakers who remain officially undecided. "I would like to get to 27 or higher." The state Senate has 49 members.
Opponents of same-sex marriage now plan to put the issue before voters, asking them to reaffirm marriage as between one man and one woman.
To qualify for the November ballot, the measure must collect at least 241,153 signatures of registered voters by July 6.
"The institution of marriage does not belong to the legislature, it belongs to the people," said Joseph Backholm, head of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, an organization affiliated with Focus on the Family.
Murray said the bill's supporters are prepared for a referendum, although he hoped it would not come down to a public vote.
"It will be difficult, there's no doubt about it, but I'm confident that the state is now with us on this issue -- that on the issue of marriage equality we are now the mainstream," he said.
Opponents of gay marriage said they plan to spend $250,000 to fund primary challenges against the Republican lawmakers who vote in favor of gay marriage.
More than 40 U.S. states have outlawed same-sex marriages, while six states explicitly allow it: New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa. Gay marriage is also legal in the District of Columbia.
Polls show sharp national division on same-sex marriage, and the issue is still divisive in Washington state, which tends to be split between a liberal coast, including Seattle, and a more conservative inland.
Six prominent Pacific Northwest companies, including Microsoft and Nike, have officially endorsed the legislation.
"We believe that passing this bill would be good for our business and good for the state's economy," Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith wrote in a blog post last week.
More than 100 people testified before the Senate and House committee hearings Monday, each allotted one minute to express impassioned views for or against the proposed legislation.
"Allow me the right to marry the person who has agreed to stand by me, by my side, no matter what, until death do us part," said Sgt. Pablo Monroy, 23, a Navy veteran from Tacoma who now serves in the National Guard.
More than a dozen couples in the room raised their hands when asked who else planned to wed after same-sex marriage is legalized. They included Murray, Rep. Jaime Pederson, the bill's sponsor in the house, and Rep. Laurie Jinkins.
Writing by Dan Whitcomb, Editing by Daniel Trotta, Paul Thomasch and Greg McCune