At a press event in Montpelier Thursday, Vermont legislative leaders said they were eager to approve gay marriage in the first state to offer civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in 2000, reports The Associated Press.

Lawmakers said they would begin considering a gay marriage bill sponsored by Representatives Mark Larson (Democrat) and David Zuckerman (Progressive) when they return to work. The Legislature is currently on a 2 week break.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith – both Democrats – said the economy remains their highest priority, but that the Legislature is capable of multitasking.

Shumlin said the gay marriage bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold week-long hearings on the issue beginning March 16. A public hearing has been scheduled for March 18 at 6PM at the Statehouse.

Fifty-nine co-sponsors have signed on to the bill, none of which are Republican. But Republican House Leader Patti Komline told the Rutland Herald that she would support the measure.

“I consider it a civil rights issue,” Komline said.

A similar bill is being sponsored by Senator John Campbell in the Senate, but has yet to be formally introduced.

Gay activists remain hopeful that gay marriage will come to Vermont and New Jersey this year. They had hoped to add New York to that list, but Democratic leaders there have admitted they don't have the votes.

Beth Robinson, chairwoman of Vermont Freedom To Marry, told gay weekly The Washington Blade that the likelihood of passage this year was “very high.”

Gay activists are actively pushing for gay marriage in the six state New England region. Already Massachusetts and Connecticut offer gay nuptials. The remaining four states – Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire – will be reviewing gay marriage bills throughout the legislative session. However, Rhode Island Republican Governor Donald Carcieri has already stated his opposition to the legislation.

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas does not support gay marriage, but has not indicated he would veto the measure. Many believe he'll let the measure become law without this signature.