BOSTON—As yet another Democratic lawmaker was pouring out a personal story late Thursday night, state Senate President Robert Travalgini interrupted.
"I have just been informed by the clerk that it is now 12 o'clock midnight," the Boston Democrat declared.
No amendment was passed, and the Legislature adjourned until March 11.
Three separate amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman were voted down in the course of the bitter, joint legislative session.
Some included references to civil union -- the marriage-like alternative adopted by Vermont as a statute but never before codified in a constitution.
A fourth amendment on the table Thursday night troubled some liberal legislators who feared their colleagues would vote it down to make way for another proposal that still defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- but offered stricter guidelines for the establishment of civil unions.
"It has been a struggle for the members, as it is for every citizen," said House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a Boston Democrat. "Every proposal has serious social, cultural and legal implications, and the members are approaching this task in a very thoughtful way. No one should expect that decisions of this magnitude would be made casually or quickly."
Applauding exhausted lawmakers as they streamed out of their chamber, Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, reflected on the legislative marathon.
"We are obviously happy to have dodged this bullet," she said. "But we don't delude ourselves into thinking that at the end of the day, they won't put our civil rights on the ballot."
Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute and a spokesman for for the Coalition for Marriage, said he was "extremely disappointed" with the outcome.
"I put the primary responsibility on the leadership," Crews said.
But a legislative aide who asked not to be named said the Legislature's failure to take action "allowed everyone to walk away without being a loser."
To reverse a court decision making Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, lawmakers were left with no alternative but to draft a constitutional amendment.
Changes to the Massachusetts constitution -- the oldest in America -- require a three-step process. An initial vote by a majority of both houses in the Legislature must be followed one year later by a second vote of approval. The following November, the amendment must be presented to voters as a ballot referendum.
If a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is approved by the current Legislature -- and then reaffirmed a year later -- the earliest it could reach the general public is November 2006.
Under a ruling by the state's highest court, however, same-sex couples would be eligible to marry in Massachusetts as early as May 17.
In a clarification last week, the court emphasized that civil unions would not satisfy constitutional requirements. That ruling prompted the flurry of action by lawmakers.
The fact that the latest proposed amendment did not specify what would happen to same-sex couples who marry in the 2 1/2-year interim before the constitutional change reached the public was troubling to some supporters of same-sex marriage.