By Daniel Lovering
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - A bill to make gay marriage legal in Rhode Island, one of the most Democratic states, was expected to be passed by the state's House of Representatives on Thursday but faces an uphill battle in the state Senate.
The legislation, supported by Governor Lincoln Chafee, aims to make Rhode Island the 10th state in the nation and the last in New England to legalize gay weddings.
Democratic Representative Arthur Handy, lead sponsor of the bill, said he expected "a very solid majority" to vote for the legislation after a debate late Thursday afternoon.
"I think the momentum in Rhode Island is indicative of what we're seeing across the country," he said, noting that President Barack Obama had mentioned same-sex marriage in his inaugural address on Monday.
Handy has introduced the legislation every year since 2003, following efforts by another lawmaker who began putting it forward in 1997.
Rhode Island was left as the last of New England's six states without a law allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed after Maine legalized same-sex marriage late last year.
Nine of the 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. Maryland was the most recent, with gay marriage becoming legal there on January 1.
Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
In Rhode Island, it was unclear how the legislation would fare in the Senate, though Handy said in the last election cycle both houses had elected more "pro-equality" candidates than ever before.
The state Senate president, Teresa Paiva Weed, opposes gay marriage, but has said she will allow a Senate judiciary committee vote on the bill if it passes in the House.
Senate spokesman Greg Pare said predictions that a Senate vote on the bill would be close had not changed.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Dan Grebler)