MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – The Vermont House prepared to vote on a gay marriage bill Thursday as hundreds of partisans packed the House balcony and the seats around the edges, with supporters saying it would bring gay and lesbian couples to full equality and opponents saying it would dilute the meaning of traditional marriage.

A vote on the measure – which has already passed the state Senate – was expected late Thursday. Gov. Jim Douglas has said he will veto the bill if the Legislature passes it.

Rep. William Lippert, who is gay, said Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil unions law in 2000 was a compromise, and that that now the state should “boldly take the next step to full equality for gay and lesbian couples by passing Senate Bill 115.”

Some supporters wore yellow buttons: “Vermont Freedom to Marry, From Legal Rights to Equal Rights,” they said. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder in Vermont’s 19th-century legislative chamber with a scattering of people wearing brown-and-white stickers: “Marriage: A Mother and Father for Every Child.”

Lobbying efforts aimed at swaying lawmakers continued in the hours leading up to the vote. At midday, about 200 gay marriage opponents gathered on the Statehouse steps to urge defeat of the bill and to thank Douglas, who announced last week his intent to veto the bill when it reaches his desk.

The 150-member House has 95 Democrats and five members of the left-leaning Progressive Party; the bill was expected to pass easily. The real question was whether supporters would be able to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override Douglas’ veto.

Whatever the result of the vote Thursday, the House must vote again on the bill Friday in its third and final reading.

Douglas wasn’t pushing fellow Republicans to oppose the bill. “This is such a tough, personal, emotional decision that I have not told people what to do,” he said earlier Thursday.

Opponents want a statewide referendum on the question. Vermont’s constitution does not permit binding referenda, so such a vote would be nonbinding. An amendment offered Thursday would have replaced the bill with one calling for a vote by Vermont residents, but it was rejected in a 96-52 vote.

“Any issue this big deserves a vote of the people before it becomes the law of the people,” said same-sex marriage opponent Craig Bensen, leader of Take It to the People. “Let Vermont vote!”

Critics of the referendum plan said they worried that Vermont would be inundated with out-of-state money and “robo-calls” from national groups.

They said that happened in California as that state prepared for a vote in which it reversed a decision from its highest court legalizing same-sex marriage.

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