Panel Backs GOP Leadership Role in Senate Fracas

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A Republican-led panel on Monday backed GOP leaders’ decision to vote on bills during a rowdy Senate floor session and ignore shouting Democrats’ attempts to halt the proceedings.

The Senate Rules Committee was looking into Friday’s standoff over a missing senator, whose absence led Democrats to try to invoke a parliamentary rule that requires all members to be present.

The move would have ended the floor session and killed Republican bills facing deadline, but Senate President Jeff Essmann went ahead with the voting as Democrats banged on desks and tried to drown him out.

Democrats complain the Republicans broke the rules by going on with the session, but the Republican-led committee concluded that Essmann acted properly to preserve decorum.

The rules committee said in party-line votes that the bills had proper public notice despite their late entry and that the GOP bills had been properly transmitted to the House, despite procedural maneuvering aimed at stopping them.

Democrats wanted to use the “call of the Senate” motion to stall business until two proposed ballot measures died with the passage of a procedural deadline. The measures would bypass the potential veto pen of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and bring the bills to the voters for ratification.

Senate Bill 405 seeks to end same-day voter registration. Senate Bill 408 would create a “top two” primary that seeks to prevent third-party candidates from stealing votes away from major party candidates in the general election, which has harmed Republican candidates in recent elections.

Democrats have suggested the matter could end up in court, perhaps in a challenge to the validity of the ballot measures before they appear in the 2014 election.

“Some of these questions will be decided in a different room and a different place than here,” said Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman.

Republicans said in the committee Monday that the courts don’t have jurisdiction over the Senate proceedings.

GOP leaders have promised investigations into whether Democrats intentionally misled the chamber during procedural maneuvering. Essmann has issued subpoenas to Democratic leaders trying to determine if Sen. Shannon Augare’s absence on Friday was orchestrated to create a reason for the “call of the Senate” motion.

Also on Monday, two of the more vocal Democrats in the Friday protest were removed from a Senate Ethics Committee. Sens. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy and Dick Barrett were replaced with two other Democrats, Sens. Dave Wanzenried and Brad Hamlett.

Some lawmakers were hoping for improved relations as bad blood arising from the episode threatened to harm work done in the Legislature’s final 17 days.

“We should not waste it in rounds of bickering, accusations, and witch-hunting,” state Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said in a statement. “I believe there are members of both parties who share my desire that this institution pick itself up, dust itself off, and get back to work.”

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