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Following Leadership Coup, Gay Marriage Probably DOA in New York State [UPDATED: Or Is It?]

Who knew there could be such excitement in Albany?

Republicans seized control of the New York State Senate on Monday, in a stunning and sudden reversal of fortunes for the Democratic Party, which controlled the chamber for barely five months.

A raucous leadership fight erupted on the floor of the Senate around 3 p.m., with two Democrats, Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens, joining the 30 Senate Republicans in a motion that would displace Democrats as the party in control.

It was a noisy and acrimonious scene on the floor of the Senate as Senator Thomas W. Libous, a Republican from Binghamton and the party’s deputy leader, shouted for a roll-call vote, while Democrats attempted to stall the vote by asking to adjourn the session.

All 30 Republicans stood with their hands raised, signaling a vote for a change in leadership. Mr. Espada and Mr. Monserrate joined them, each raising his hand. Republicans won the vote by a 32-to-30 margin. The Senate will now be governed under a new joint leadership structure, with Mr. Espada serving as the president pro tempore, and Senator Dean G. Skelos, of Long Island, as the new majority leader.

The prospects for gay marriage in New York State, which were already fairly tenuous, would now seem to be very bleak for the current senatorial term. The deposed majority leader, Malcolm Smith, had already been reluctant to bring a vote to the floor unless he had the votes. The new “bipartisan” leadership, with control of the chamber’s agenda, presumably will prefer to vote on other issues rather than focus one where New Yorkers are almost evenly divided and it will be very hard to extract advantage from their tenuous, and possibly temporary (see below), hold on power. Indeed, quite a few senate Republicans had explained their no (or undecided) votes by saying that they viewed gay marriage as a “distraction”.

It would be dubious, however, to suggest that gay marriage itself was the cause of the leadership change. Among the two disloyal Democrats involved in the kerfuffle, Espada was a supporter of gay marriage and Monserrate was on the fence.

And indeed, we ought to be careful of coming to too much of any conclusion, period. These things can sometimes unravel themselves with as little as a stray tweet here and there, and one of the defectors, Monserratte, is facing an indictment for felony assault and would automatically be ejected from the senate if convicted. Even if Smith and the rest of the Democrats win back control of the chamber, however, one expects they’d be reluctant to rock the boat by pushing forward on the gay marriage issue. The fact of the matter is that there are three NYC-based Democrats who are no votes on gay marriage and another three NYC-based Democrats who are undecided. If Democrats had most or all of those votes, gay marriage would be (or would have been) a heavy favorite to pass, but they don’t.

New York’s 62 senators are elected to concurrent, two-year terms; all will be up for re-election in 2010.

EDIT: If you absolutely need a ray of hope, the new rules the Senate seems prepared to operate under appears to give more power to individual members in pushing legislation to the floor.

# A new motion for consideration is created. A sponsor may move to have his or her bill included on the next active list if a majority of members present and voting agree to the motion.
# A petition for consideration is also created, which allows a majority of the members elected to request a bill be put to the floor. If successful, the bill shall be placed on the active list for the next session day. If within the last four days of session, it shall be immediately considered by the body if successful.

So in theory, if gay marriage had the 32 votes it needed to begin with, it would also have the votes for a “motion for consideration” to bring it to the floor. The problem is that gay marriage only had about 20 or so enthusiastic supporters, and under the current conditions my guess is that most the other 12 are going to be careful about making any false moves, even if you might find a couple of sympathetic Republicans who were planning to vote no on gay marriage but were nevertheless willing to bring it to a floor vote.

But, who knows. Marriage equity advocates should probably be focusing their attention for the time being on collecting votes (or signatures) for a so-called motion (or petition) of consideration, and calling out senators who are trying to have it both ways — pun somewhat intended.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.