By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Gay rights advocates in Colorado were dealt a setback when a bill that would have granted civil unions to same-sex couples failed to advance to a full vote before the last day of the legislative session on Wednesday.
Had the bill passed, Colorado would have become only the second state in the largely conservative, libertarian-minded Rocky Mountain region to endorse civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples after Nevada did so in 2009.
A vote in the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a one-vote majority, had been expected to be close, with supporters of the bill saying they expected several Republicans to vote for it. A similar bill failed to win passage last year.
But under House rules, a bill must have a preliminary vote before a formal one, and those two steps cannot occur on the same day. The bill did not get a preliminary vote late on Tuesday, after it passed a key committee earlier in the day by a 7-6 vote.
When Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty announced late on Tuesday the bills that would not be heard, the civil unions bill among them, gay rights advocates in the gallery chanted, "Shame on you, shame on you."
The House sponsor of the bill, Democratic Representative Mark Ferrandino, who is gay and the House minority leader, told reporters the bill had advanced farther than any previous Colorado civil unions bill. "We'll continue to fight," he said.
Representative Mark Waller, a Republican and the assistant majority leader, blamed Democrats for trying to force a vote on the issue ahead of other bills. "They (Democrats) sat on this bill for 108 days," he said.
Nine states already allow civil unions or domestic partnerships, while another eight plus the District of Columbia have gone further and allow gay marriage or are awaiting enactment of laws legalizing gay nuptials.
On Tuesday, voters in North Carolina approved a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions, dealing a blow to efforts across the country to expand gay marriage rights.
The Colorado bill would have allowed domestic partners to make medical decisions for each other and become eligible for certain insurance and retirement benefits.
Brad Clark, executive director of gay rights group One Colorado, said in a statement that House leaders had decided to "play politics" by not voting on the bill.
"We will now take our fight to the election, and come November, we will win a pro-equality majority that will vote to protect all loving couples," he said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)