The Hawaii Senate has approved a civil unions bill that grants gay and lesbian couples all the rights, benefits and obligations of marriage, the Star Bulletin reported.

The 18 to 7 final tally was a stinging defeat for social conservatives, who cheered last year when the bill ran aground in a Senate committee after they staged a huge anti-gay rights rally at the Capitol. The vote's veto-proof majority is a huge win for backers of gay rights.

The drama over the bill has been intense. Last year, senators were forced to fish the bill out of committee during the final days of the legislative session after it deadlocked on a 3-3 vote. Senators quickly amended the bill to include both gay and straight couples but the session ended without a vote on the measure.

This year, lawmakers appeared determined to deal with the issue during the opening days of the session in order to keep the effects of the debate from lingering into the November general election.

In front of a packed Senate gallery filled with boisterous supporters and opponents of the bill, senators debated the bill.

“Does this really have to do with civil rights? The answer is no. It has to do with money,” Senator Sam Slom, a Republican from Hawaii Kai, said.

But Democratic Senator Roz Baker of Maui disagreed.

“There are all kinds of families and all kinds of relationships and they all deserve to be treated equal,” she said.

Activists who lobbied for the bill cheered its passage.

“We're very pleased that the Hawaii State Senate took action and passed the civil unions bill today,” Tambry Young, co-chair of Equality Hawaii, said in a statement. “The Senate acted with great courage, conviction and integrity. They did the right thing for all Hawaii's families.”

The amended bill now heads to the House, which approved the original bill last year in a 33 to 17 vote, one vote shy of a veto-proof majority.

Republican Governor Linda Lingle has remained silent on whether she would sign the bill, but Democratic leaders concede she likely wouldn't, which means the bill must clear both chambers of the Legislature with a veto-proof majority to remain viable.

Backers looking for a second overwhelming vote from the Legislature have taken heart in the remarks of several representatives who have suggested they could support the amended version. However, House Speaker Calvin Say has said he is uncertain whether the bill can pass the House a second time.

Hawaii was the first state to approve a gay marriage ban in 1998 after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage.