An attempt by House Democrats to push through emergency rules allowing for remote formal sessions stalled out after Republican action ended Wednesday's House session — a move that drew a strong rebuke from the House speaker and an equally strong rebuttal from the House GOP leader.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones' move derailed House Speaker Robert DeLeo's plans to hold a remote formal session on Thursday to advance a Gov. Charlie Baker borrowing bill to tide the state through pandemic-related revenue shortfalls. After disagreements reached a tipping point, Jones objected and ended the session for the day by doubting the presence of a quorum, which was not present in the House.
"It was an inability to reach a further consensus on some modifications to the order and a continuing concern with a part of my members that the order took too much away from their ability to debate," Jones said, explaining why he ended the session.
The bill House leaders wanted to take up on Thursday is a House Ways and Means report on legislation (H 4593) that allows the Treasury to borrow an unspecified amount this fiscal year and pay it back by the end of the next fiscal year. Baker previously said the legislation is needed "to protect the state's budgetary and cash balances during a public health emergency."
After Wednesday's session ended, DeLeo said Jones' action could "imperil the state's cash flow, require cuts to services for vulnerable populations during a public health crisis, and harm the state's bond rating, which will only add to the future cost of borrowing."
"Today, Republicans blocked a set of emergency procedures aimed at allowing the House to hold formal sessions while keeping members, staff, and the public safe during the COVID-19 pandemic," DeLeo said in a statement, adding that Baker "has told leaders of both parties that it is time sensitive and critical to the state's finances."
Rep. Paul Donato (D-Medford) chaired Wednesday's session and said he was "bewildered" that Republicans blocked the rules from moving forward. Donato said lawmakers will meet again on Thursday to consider the rules.
Rules Committee Chairman William Galvin sent a first draft of the proposed temporary emergency rules to members Monday for consideration and both parties held caucuses Tuesday afternoon. Democrats and Republicans alike raised concerns with a 25 percent threshold to secure a roll call vote and proposed limits on debate. House Democrats eventually backed away from the plan to raise the roll call requirement, leaving it at the 10 percent required under current House rules.
DeLeo, in his statement on Wednesday, said the Baker administration and Jones were briefed extensively on the rules changes and said several of the House Republicans' recommendations were incorporated.
"This is an unparalleled example of both recklessness and fiscal irresponsibility; a partisan political move meant to enhance their power at the expense of the taxpayer and the safety of the public," DeLeo said.
After the session, Jones said he could only point to one change in the order specifically geared towards his requests: allowing both the House speaker and minority leader to have a staff member present on the chamber floor.
Jones repeatedly told the News Service on Wednesday that he might block the bill if House leadership did not address his caucus' concerns regarding the limit on how many times a member can be recognized, a 10 a.m. deadline to sign up to debate, and the inability for members to know how long a recess, or break, might last.
In an attempt to limit the duration of the emergency rules, Jones filed an amendment that would add a sunset clause rendering the emergency rules moot after the House enacted the borrowing bill.
"We'll even take your crappy order that you're ramming down people's throats and we'll get that bill done. And then we'll come back and we'll use that interim time to try to see if we can each come to consensus," Jones told reporters on Wednesday, explaining his logic. "They decided against that."
Prior to taking up the Jones amendment, House Democrats started to amass in the chamber during an extended recess after Republican members had started to gather. At one point in the session, a News Service reporter counted around 24 House members in the Chamber, a majority of them Democrats.
"The Republican action today, which forced us to call in Members to the Chamber, is in direct conflict with the Baker Administration's guidance on physical distancing and puts at risk House Members, staff, and the public at large," DeLeo said.
Late Wednesday, Jones issued a lengthy statement calling DeLeo's comments "untruthful" and alleging that the emergency rules "seem to be about placing more power into the hands of the Speaker's office."
"I am shocked and disappointed at the Speaker's overreaction to what transpired at today's session, and want to vigorously refute any suggestion that the Republican caucus is in any way jeopardizing the state's finances or putting peopleâ€™s health and safety at risk," Jones said. "The safety of staff and members is of paramount importance to me. I worked directly with members of the Speaker's Leadership team and we were very close today to reaching an agreement to allow for remote voting. I at no time took action that should have derailed that progress. 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."
Jones also suggested new rules were not even necessary to send the borrowing bill to the Senate Wednesday.
"The Speaker chose to prioritize the rules proposal over consideration of the bill, which we could easily and without opposition have engrossed and sent to the Senate today while trying to hammer out a longer term, more balanced order," he wrote.
While the only action on the rules during Wednesday's informal session revolved around the sunset amendment, much of the concern felt by the Republican caucus stems from the debate outline laid out in the emergency rules.
The House rejected the sunset amendment but Democrats said that vote was voided after Jones's motion doubting the presence of a quorum ended Wednesday's session.
Rep. David Vieira (R-Falmouth) said a "reasonable compromise" would be to allocate a period of time to the speaker and minority leader and allow them to yield time to their members to debate.
"The difficult part is making sure the emergency rules preserve the rights of Members of the House, which in turn preserve the rights of the 43,000+ constituents we represent," Vieira wrote in a Facebook post.