HELENA — The Montana Senate erupted into chaos Friday when shouting Democrats pounded their desks in an attempt to drown out their Republican counterparts while they voted on bills and ignored Democratic attempts to stall the chamber.
The brouhaha brought a noisy end to the session’s early promises of compromise and bipartisanship — and the threat of legal action over the bills that passed amid the ruckus.
It began with a standoff over Democrats attempting to halt Friday’s floor session because one of their senators was missing. Republicans alleged the absence was merely a ruse to invoke a parliamentary procedure aimed at killing GOP ballot measures.
Friday is the deadline for ballot referendums and tax bills. Any bills that don’t advance by noon Saturday will die.
On the agenda were two legislative referendums to change elections that are considered threatening to Democratic candidates. One would create a “top two” primary. Only the two candidates who receive the most votes would advance to the general election.
Another would do away with same-day voter registration. Republicans believe the practice gives Democrats an advantage because they have proven effective at drumming up last-minute turnout.
Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, meaning Democrats would be unable to stop the referendums’ passage in a vote in the chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso asked for a midday recess, where he told his caucus that he would invoke the parliamentary procedure that demands every member is present before business can resume. He said he had been unable to locate Sen. Shannon Augare of Browning and wanted him present for voting.
But Republicans heard the news before the chamber reconvened, and spent hours plotting a counter strategy. Republicans said they believe Democrats are fabricating the crisis to kill ballot referendums they dislike.
When the chamber reconvened, Senate President Jeff Essmann began holding votes on bills, above Democratic cries of “sham votes!” and “this is unconstitutional!” The Democrats hollered and pounded their desks, as did many in the packed viewing gallery.
Afterward, seething Democrats made the “call of the Senate” motion that prevents anyone from leaving until Augare is returned to the chamber. But Republicans used a simple majority to adjourn the chamber for the day, since they had already held the votes.
Sesso told reporters that he had since heard from Augare, who had reported that he was so upset over the Republican bills from a day earlier that he had decided to drive home to the Blackfeet reservation.
“It is my understanding that he has returned to his home on the reservation,” Sesso said.
Augare did not return a cellphone message left by The Associated Press, and tribal attorney Sandra Watts said she did not know where he was.
Democrats alleged the final votes, called third reading, are not valid because the Montana Constitution allows a minority of members to stop work until the entire chamber is present. The Democrats were considering an appeal to the courts.
“My understanding is that none of the work done on third reading is legal,” Sesso said.
Republican leaders said they decided to make the final votes on the bills because Democrats had stated intentions of using rules to bring disorder to the chamber.
“The work had to be done despite the attempt to obstruct it,” state Sen. Art Wittich said.
So far this session, Senate Democrats had relied on the votes of five Republicans to move bipartisan bills dealing with school funding, campaign finance law and other issues.
Republicans said they believed the Democratic attempts to undermine their ballot referendum had coalesced the GOP caucus — previously fractured over the way Wittich and other GOP leaders had gained control of the caucus.
“You saw the caucus vote together today, didn’t you?” Wittich said.
Along with the referendums, two GOP tax-cut measures, along with some other bills, were also subject to the final votes. All passed with Republicans voting yes, while Democrats held the loud protest.
The political tactic Republicans accuse the Democrats of is reminiscent of the 2003 legislative session in Texas. Then, Democrats outnumbered by Republicans fled for Oklahoma with the aim of waiting out a legislative deadline and killing a congressional redistricting bill.
Early on Friday, Sesso denied Augare’s disappearance was orchestrated by Democrats to stall the Legislature.
The governor’s office said it had no knowledge of the event. But several of Gov. Steve Bullock’s top staffers — chief of staff Tim Burton and deputies Kevin O’Brien and Ali Bovingdon — made a rare appearance at the midday Democratic caucus where Sesso made his announcement.
“We heard something interesting was going to happen,” O’Brien said.
Throughout the afternoon, both sides huddled in private meetings that reporters were not allowed to attend.
Late in the day Bullock read a statement to reporters chastising Republican leaders for not recognizing the Democrats as they attempted their motion.
“Since I was sworn in as your Governor, I’ve sought to change the tone in this building,” Bullock said. “I’m saddened by what we saw today. It’s worse than Washington, D.C. “
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