Doc, Nurse Say Reps Ready to Vote In-Person
MAY 4, 2020.....Some House Democrats said over the weekend they were willing to do "whatever is necessary" to push through temporary rules to allow for remote debate and voting during the coronavirus emergency, backing up Speaker Robert DeLeo who on Friday began to prepare to call members to the capitol if Republicans don't relent.
House Republicans last week blocked a package of rules put together by Democratic leaders to resume meeting in formal sessions to pass legislation that requires roll call votes, including an annual state budget.
The speaker's plan was to immediately pass a short-term borrowing bill to make sure the state can meet its financial obligations during the crisis, but the minority party has so far objected to the limitations that would be put on debate under the emergency rules.
The House is back in session on Monday to try to pass the emergency rules with a limited number of members on hand, but if Republicans again object DeLeo is contemplating an in-person vote to get it done.
Democrats said the emergency rules were carefully crafted over several weeks to be fair to both Republicans and Democrats, and are beginning to blame House Minority Leader Brad Jones for putting politics ahead of the health of fellow lawmakers.
"The ideal situation would have been to pass these rules in an informal session. But our Republican colleagues have decided to stall these on two different occasions and quite frankly, there needs to be a sense of urgency," said Rep. Jon Santiago, of Boston. "My hope is that we will reach an agreement, but if there is not agreement my House colleagues and I are prepared to come and vote in person."
Santiago, an emergency room physician, was set to begin another weekend of shifts at Boston Medical Center on Friday night when he said he "could not in good conscience" participate in formal sessions with 159 other members for the duration of this public health crisis.
But, he said, he was willing to do it once to ensure that all legislators could participate in the process and have their votes recorded remotely moving forward.
"I would say for this one time, it would be worth it and would be necessary. By no means is this the preferred outcome, but House leadership will do it in away to preserve social distancing," Santiago said.
Jones did not return a call over the weekend seeking an update on the status of the negotiations with House leadership, or the criticism from some legislators that his tactics could jeopardize public health.
Last week, the North Reading Republican called similar comments from DeLeo an "overreaction" to what he was trying to accomplish.
"The safety of staff and members is of paramount importance to me...," Jones said. "We all have a job to do as elected officials but that should not require accountability and transparency to suffer more than it already has under this pandemic."
The first notion that Democrats could be called back to the State House by DeLeo to pass the emergency rules package surfaced Friday when a source close to the speaker said DeLeo was preparing for that possibility.
The House has an informal session planned for Monday to try again to reach a deal.
"If that fails, the speaker is preparing to look at a formal session to approve the rules package, consistent with public health and social distancing," the source said Friday.
Whether he is serious or just trying to send a message, tape markings had been laid out Friday on the marble floors outside the House chamber six feet apart to inform proper social distancing etiquette.
The tape marks snaked from the entrance to the House chamber, down the third-floor hallway toward the governor's office, and down the large marble staircase to Nurse's Hall, presumably for members to line up and cycle through the chamber to vote.
"I am personally and professionally appalled that the minority party chooses to disrupt the carefully constructed process of remote voting, which is the result of weeks of work and is based on the principles of public health, access, and security. It is disappointing to me that in order to serve my district and begin the process to move the Commonwealth forward, I may be compelled to vote in a manner that unnecessarily risks the health of my family and my community," said Rep. Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat and the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee.
Garlick, who is also a registered nurse, said she would "do whatever is necessary to break this unnecessary barrier to voting."
Neither House leadership nor the governor's office or the state Treasury have said whether a failure to pass the short-term borrowing bill soon will have negative impacts on state finances. This has raised questions about whether DeLeo's hardball tactics are necessary to get the bill through.
Republicans had offered to let the borrowing bill pass and move to the Senate while they continue talks over the rules, but a roll call vote would still be required before the bill could get to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk.
Santiago was part of the working group that developed a system for remote voting that would satisfy any technical or legal challenges that arise. He said he didn't know enough of the details of the negotiations between DeLeo and Jones to say whether there was room for the speaker, as well as minority leader, to compromise on their positions.
Garlick, however, said the rules as drafted were the result of "hours and hours and hours of work," legal research and discussions.
"It is the very best we can do based on the principles of public health, access and security. This process based on these principles has been developed for the benefit of all members of the House," Garlick said.
If a deal cannot be reached, DeLeo will need to muster a quorum of at least 81 Democrats to show up in person to pass the rules package. Rep. Edward Coppinger, of West Roxbury, won't be one of them.
Coppinger said his doctor has told him that after having kidney replacement surgery in 2015 it's too dangerous for him to be in a crowd. For now he has focused on constituent services, but Coppinger said he needs the House to implement a process for him to participate remotely so that he can continue voting and representing his district during the pandemic.
"They went to great lengths to ensure that people could vote, and I feel like (Jones) is backing everyone into a corner over something that needs to be done," Coppinger said.
The House currently has 158 members; about three dozen mask-wearing members attended Thursday's informal session. Democrats hold a super-majority in the House, but Jones, who has called the temporary rules plan "draconian," has used his ability to stop the plan from advancing during informal sessions where the House meets without a quorum and matters require unanimous consent to pass.
Jones said Thursday evening that there had been a "helpful back and forth" with Democratic leadership that he hoped would continue into the weekend.
The House meets in an informal session at 11 a.m., and DeLeo has tentatively scheduled formal sessions every day for the rest of the week.