Partisan bickering turned uncharacteristically nasty Thursday night after a procedural trap sprung by House Republicans spawned a harshly worded recrimination from a key Democratic leader.
House Minority Leader Don Turner submitted a letter to House Speaker Shap Smith earlier this session outlining in advance the terms under which he’d acquiesce to rules suspensions. So long as his GOP caucus had 24 hours to review bills before they went to the floor, Turner told Smith, he’d allow a bypassing of parliamentary rules.
But in a meeting Thursday, Turner backed away from his commitment, unveiling a list of new demands. Unless Smith capitulated, Turner said, Democrats wouldn’t get the rules suspensions they’ll need if Smith wants to fulfill his legislative agenda and meet his Saturday adjournment deadline.
The unexpected development brought tensions between the parties to new heights. But thing would only intensify when the Democratic caucus met at8:30 p.m.to discuss the developments.
Microphone in hand, House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche stood before her members and unleashed a diatribe against the Republican leader, taking Turner to task for reneging on his commitment. If lawmakers are to adjourn Saturday, Leriche said, then the inability to suspend rules would likely force lawmakers to abandon hopes for passing a number of bills.
“In true hostage form – it was really kind of funny – he presented us with a list of demands,” Leriche told her Democratic caucus. “He whipped out this list … I was not impressed with his little list of demands and from my perspective it’s not consistent with good leadership. As far as I’m concerned we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Recognizing a reporter was in the room, Democratic members sought immediately to throw Leriche a shovel. She took the cue.
“After I said it I realized that was a little harsh,” she said. “I do not mean that literally of course. This is a democracy and they have every right to that.”
But House Republicans, who had convened a simultaneous caucus in the room next door, quickly condemned the “terrorist” rhetoric.
“It’s obvious tensions are running high on both sides, but I think it’s absolutely outrageous to categorize a minority party standing up for what it thinks is right as terrorists,” said Rep. Dustin Degree, a St. Albans Republican. “This is really appalling. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t say that.”
Leriche offered a more formal apology when the full body reconvened on the House floor minutes later.
“I think I got carried away just now in Democratic caucus and was exaggerating beyond reason in my description of my perception of what was happening with the minority party,” said Leriche, a Hardwick Democrat. “I have no excuse, unfortunately, and I really am truly sorry.”
Turner’s change of heart, combined with Smith’s commitment to a Saturday adjournment, throws in doubt passage of several bills. Among the potential casualties: legislation that would force insurance companies to disclose information on claims denials, and a miscellaneous motor vehicles bill that would expand the number of Vermont military families eligible for Gold Star license plates.