SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The stalling of Illinois' gay-marriage push – at least for now – shows the difficulty of approving legislation to legalize it, even with a nudge from the home-state president, steadily rising support in the polls and national momentum from the November elections.

Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor's office in the solidly blue state. Yet the margin of support Senate Democrats were able to pull together for a bill last week was so thin that a death in one lawmaker's family and another senator's extended trip to Israel were enough to push the issue into the next legislative session.

Supporters downplayed the delay, saying a Senate committee's vote to advance the measure was history itself and insisting same-sex marriage here is inevitable. But there's no denying that even as the nation's feelings about the issue appear to be shifting, lawmakers have been more reluctant to do so – particularly in the nation's heartland.

No legislature in the middle of the country has approved gay marriage. Of the nine states that allow it, Iowa is the only one not located on the nation's coasts, and it adopted same-sex unions through the courts, not the Legislature.

As it became clear last week that Illinois didn't have a deal and would have to push back a vote until possibly February, Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, mentioned same-sex marriage along with gun control as measures that are "always going to be very, very tough" to pass.

That makes a potential victory in Illinois even sweeter, advocates say. The Iowa Supreme Court's decision to void the state's gay marriage ban in 2009 shocked people on both coasts and sent ripples across the nation, said Jim Bennett, director of the Midwest office of Lambda Legal.

"I think Illinois is the same way," Bennett said. "There's a sense that if it happens in the middle of the country, it's not a trend. It's a new understanding of the gay community and where we are."

While President Barack Obama's home state is known for its liberal policies, its Democratic leadership hails mostly from Chicago while the rest of the state – including fellow Democrats – are far more conservative. One Republican from downstate Illinois said what happened last week was a reflection of that.

"I think the Legislature is a microcosm of the state's society, and it proves once again that the state of Illinois is not ready for gay marriage," Sen. Sam McCann said.

But Edwin Yohnka, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is part of a coalition pushing the bill, characterized the committee vote as "a great accomplishment."

"That was something a year ago or two years ago people would not have conceived," Yohnka said. "We are a day closer today to having the freedom to marry for all couples in Illinois than we were yesterday, and we will be a day closer tomorrow. Marriage is coming to Illinois."

Supporters have a parallel effort underway in the Illinois courts, where 25 gay and lesbian couples are challenging the state law that prohibits marriage between people of the same sex, but the legal process could take years. And unlike some other states, Illinois doesn't have a process for citizens to change state statutes at the ballot box. So the Legislature is seen as the quickest, less expensive route for marriage-equality advocates.

A gay marriage bill was introduced in the Legislature early last year but was going nowhere until last fall. In November, voters in four states either approved gay marriage or voted down bans on it. Wisconsin elected an openly gay U.S. senator, and an Iowa Supreme Court justice who participated in the court's unanimous ruling in favor of gay marriage kept his seat. Two years earlier, voters ousted three of his colleagues.

Coming just months after Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, Illinois advocates decided to grab the momentum and press the issue before the Legislature as soon as they believed they could get it through. That meant the January lame-duck session, which had the added benefit of letting dozens of lawmakers who wouldn't have to stand for re-election vote their conscience.

"You really had a sense that it's our time." Bennett said. "We moved when the iron was hot."

Some observers questioned whether advocates rushed too much, not taking time to iron out details that might have helped pick up some votes. But the bill's sponsor and other supporters said they had done their due diligence and the only glitch was the absence of three lawmakers whose backing was critical.

One suburban Chicago Republican, Sen. Suzi Schmidt, was absent because her mother died, while Democratic Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg was overseas for his daughter's bat mitzvah and Democratic Sen. James Clayborne had a family emergency.

Lawmakers note it's not unusual for an issue – especially one as controversial as same-sex marriage – to take several hearings before getting a floor vote. Cullerton and the bill's sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, said they will spend the next few weeks of the new session, which begins Wednesday, trying to tweak the bill to allay Republican concerns about violations of religious freedom.

One supporter said votes could occur as early as February. Until then, they will continue to meet with legislators and tell their stories – an approach that has seemed to work well so far. And they say this week's events ignited their coalition in a way they haven't seen in nearly a decade.

"At the end of the day, I feel momentum is still behind us, and it's strong," Bennett said.

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Associated Press writers Regina Garcia-Cano and John O'Connor contributed to this report.

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  • A supporter for same sex marriage wears a sticker on her jacket prior to attending a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. The Illinois Senate is expected to consider a measure that would remove a state prohibition on marriage between two people of the same gender. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Illinois Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, left, is congratulated by Illinois Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, both supporters of same sex marriage, as same sex marriage legislation passes a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. The Illinois Senate is considering a measure that would remove a state prohibition on marriage between two people of the same gender. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Illinois Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, a supporter for same sex marriage, testifies during a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. The Illinois Senate is considering a measure that would remove a state prohibition on marriage between two people of the same gender. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Theresa Volpe, left, testifies along side of her daughter Ava as her partner Mercedes Santos sits with their son Jaidon during a Senate Executive committee hearing considering same sex marriage at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Springfield Catholic diocese, left, testifies, saying the same sex marriage bill would undermine “natural marriage” between a man and a woman and would send a message that children don’t need a mother and a father, during a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. Illinois Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, a supporter for same sex marriage, looks on. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, speaks to lawmakers about same sex marriage legislation during a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. The Illinois Senate is considering a measure that would remove a state prohibition on marriage between two people of the same gender. The bill passed out of committee and maybe headed to the Senate for a vote. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Both supporters and those opposing same sex marriage listen to lawmakers during a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield, Ill. The Illinois Senate is considering a measure that would remove a state prohibition on marriage between two people of the same gender. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Illinois Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, a supporter for same sex marriage, smiles as same sex marriage legislation passes a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. The Illinois Senate is considering a measure that would remove a state prohibition on marriage between two people of the same gender. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2012 file photo, Illinois Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, right, confers with Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, on the Senate floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Advocates of legalized gay marriage in Illinois are pleased that Steans and state Rep. Greg Harris are planning to push for approval in January. Steans and Harris say they believe they have the votes necessary to fulfill Gov. Pat Quinn's hope of signing same-sex marriage into law in January. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

  • FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2012 file photo, Illinois Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, speaks with reporters on the House floor during veto session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. Emboldened by recent victories at the polls and what they see as rapidly shifting attitudes in favor of gay rights, supporters say Illinois is ready to become the next state to allow same-sex marriage _ though they acknowledge getting a bill passed isn't a done deal and won't be easy, even with Democratic majorities in Springfield. Voters in four states either supported gay marriage or opposed a ban on it on Election Day _ a sweep that Rep. Harris, the prime sponsor of a bill introduced in the Illinois House, said represents “a sea change” in public opinion. Those results, along with recent polling that shows support among an increasing number of Illinois voters, has Harris and other advocates counting votes and trying to figure out not if legislation could get passed, but how soon. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

  • FILE - In this file photo taken June 1, 2011, in Chicago, From left, Jim Darby, 79, and his partner Patrick Bora,73, and Janean Watkins, 37, and her partner, Lakeesha Harris, 36, wait in line at the Cook County Office of Vital Records to obtain civil union licenses. Emboldened by recent victories at the polls and what they see as rapidly shifting attitudes in favor of gay rights, supporters say Illinois is ready to become the next state to allow same-sex marriage _ though they acknowledge getting a bill passed isn't a done deal and won't be easy, even with Democratic majorities in Springfield. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 02: Shanelle Moffett (L) and Tenisha Watkins embrace at their civil union ceremony in Millennium Park June 2, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. More than 30 same-sex couples were joined in civil unions today during a ceremony in the park. Illinois is the sixth state to allow same-sex civil unions or their equivalent, which provide gay couples the same rights as heterosexual married couples. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)


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