HELENA — Senate Democrats tried a risky and rare parliamentary move known as a “call of the Senate” in a futile attempt to stop the Republican majority from voting on some controversial bills facing a deadline Friday.
It was the first call made in either chamber since 1987, according to Todd Everts, the Legislature’s chief lawyer.
That was when a highly controversial 11-hour “call of the House” took place before finally fizzling shortly after 2 a.m. the next day.
Here’s how the call works in the Senate. the House has similar rules:
Any five senators can order a call of the Senate if a quorum — at least 26 members of the 50-member body — is present, according to Senate rules.
After the call is made, all business must be suspended. The Senate sergeant-at-arms and other law enforcement officials are empowered to track down any missing legislators and return them to the Senate.
Meanwhile, the chambers are locked, and legislative security officers won’t allow members to leave the chambers.
In 1987, a minority of the House Republicans, whose party controlled the House, used the tactic in a failed attempt to block a tax increase bill that faced a deadline that day. Leaders knew that Rep. Bob Thoft, R-Stevensville, had driven to California for a family emergency and decided to take advantage of his absence.
The call was issued at 3:32 p.m. on March 31, 1987, and the House was paralyzed for nearly 11 hours until call was dropped at 2:15 a. m. the next day.
Thoft, driving back from California, was contacted by state troopers in other states along the way who informed him of what was happening in the Montana House. He drove straight through the day and arrived in Stevensville early in the morning and called leaders to say he was prepared to drive to Helena immediately to stop the call.
At that point, the Republican minority called off the maneuver, but it infuriated Thoft and his allies, further splitting an already-divided House GOP caucus.
Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden criticized the effort as “a disservice to the legislative process” and something that “does little to enhance the public’s credibility in the process.”
Because of the call, House members were locked in the chambers — although they were allowed to use adjacent restrooms.
A Great Falls Tribune account told how representatives whiled away the long night.
Some played brought out decks of cards and played cribbage, pitch and poker. Others tried their hand at Trivial Pursuit.
Several television sets were brought in so legislators could watch the news. They later tuned into popular TV shows, among them “Moonlighting.”
Food was brought in, including a six-foot-long submarine sandwich, with pieces sold for $1 an inch. Some ordered in pizza and fried chicken. Some legislators had soda cups that smelled like whiskey.
Schwinden summoned the Montana National Guard, which brought in 100 cots and bedding, if needed. Some legislators bedded down on couches.
House staff members ordered and wore specially made T-shirts that said “Hostage 50th Legislature.”
A bomb threat occurred, and the House speaker ordered the galleries cleared and the doors locked.
Finally, after Thoft said he would drive to Helena immediately, the call was lifted.