Reporter's Notebook: Senate Democrats gamble on blowing up the session – did it blow up in their face?

2013-04-06T19:30:00Z 2013-10-01T15:45:08Z Reporter's Notebook: Senate Democrats gamble on blowing up the session – did it blow up in their face?By MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
April 06, 2013 7:30 pm  • 

HELENA -- Montana’s Democratic Senate minority went in for a big gamble Friday, as they tried blowing up the 2013 Legislature to block a pair of bills they saw as particularly odious.

But did they instead blow away what little influence they had, to work with the Republican majority on critical issues?

Democrats at the Montana Legislature are split on that point, as some say Friday’s raucous blowup damaged a developing coalition among the Democratic minority and groups of Republican moderates in both the Senate and House on some key issues.

Yet others say that cooperation was mostly a sham, with Democrats occasionally helping out moderate Republicans advance their proposals on school funding, campaign finance reform and other items -– and getting next to nothing in return.

It was time to put their foot down, Senate Democrats said on Saturday, and Friday’s declaration of procedural war was an attempt to do that.

“They are prepared to do anything to expand their power,” Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said Saturday of legislative Republicans. “This latest naked power grab shows they are willing to suppress the voters and shred the constitution to promote their political objections.”

Blewett is talking about two bills that precipitated Friday’s volcanic political eruption, when Democrats – who hold just 21 of the Senate’s 50 seats – tried to shut down the chamber with a procedural ploy known as a “call of the Senate.”

Such a move hadn’t been made in 26 years at the Montana Legislature, when the minority party can lock down the chamber when one member of the Senate is absent. Until that member returns, all action is blocked, once the “call” is made from the floor or a two-thirds majority acts.

Sen. Shannon Augare, a Browning Democrat, was not present Friday afternoon, so Democrats tried to invoke the call and thus block final votes on bills putting two referendums on the 2014 Montana general-election ballot, asking voters whether they want to change election laws.

The first one would have voters decide whether to abolish Montana’s Election Day voter registration, instead ending voter registration the Friday before the election. The second would change Montana’s election system so that only the top two vote-getters in a primary election for an office would advance to the general election ballot for that office.

Democrats say the two measures are clearly designed to give Republicans an electoral advantage, by denying Democrats the ability to get people to the polls to register and vote on Election Day and by eliminating third-party candidates from the ballot, like Libertarians, that draw votes away from Republicans in general elections.

If the Democrats had blocked final Senate votes on these measures Friday, the bills would miss a procedural deadline and probably be dead.

But Senate Democrats blew their initial chance to blow up the process. Instead of making the call immediately when the Senate convened at noon, they took a break and announced their intention at an open caucus, giving Senate Republicans time to plot a counter-strategy.

That strategy entailed ignoring Democrats’ attempts to be recognized when the Senate reconvened at 3:15 p.m., and then having Republicans use their majority to vote the bills through. As the voting occurred, Senate Democrats stood, shouted and pounded their tables – not exactly the most flattering picture of their political skills or decorum.

Democrats said Saturday they still have a legal case to invalidate Friday’s votes, because Senate Republicans violated the rules. Maybe, maybe not.

But what about the political capital and good will Democrats forged in the first three months of the 2013 Legislature?

On some items – the state budget, a bill to rein in “dark money” in campaigns, school funding, blocking school choice bills, maybe even Medicaid expansion – moderate Republicans and minority Democrats so far have teamed up to override the more conservative Republican leadership at the 2013 Legislature.

That cooperation is probably over, Republicans and some Democrats said, in the aftermath of Senate Democrats attempting such an extreme measure to block Republican proposals.

“I think the only value in that thing yesterday was if it worked,” one Democrat said on Saturday. “It was not well-executed.”

Yet in the minds of many Democrats, “cooperation” from majority Republicans is a mirage at the 2013 Legislature. Republicans have largely trashed Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s agenda, they’re jamming through referendums to bypass the governor’s office on divisive issues, and they’re poised to kill or emasculate the items where some cooperation had occurred, Democrats say.

The gloves are off now, they say, and Friday’s fracas laid those differences bare.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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