On Saturday, for the third day in a row, only a smattering of the House's 135 sitting Democrats attended a session where Speaker Ron Mariano's leadership team hoped to push through a $3.1 billion spending bill featuring critical funds for emergency family shelter, public employee pay raises, and special education.
And as they did Thursday and Friday, Republicans who feel Democrats are mishandling shelter eligibility policy in the face of a surge of migrant arrivals again took advantage of the situation, forcing Rep. Sean Garballey (D-Arlington) to adjourn the session. Auburn Rep. Paul Frost doubted the presence of a quorum and Garballey observed that Democrats in fact did not have a quorum present.
After the 18-minute session, Mariano said more Democrats will be at the State House on Monday to attend three legislative hearings.
"It's a work day. Members will be in here," Mariano said. His office provided interview audio in response to a News Service inquiry after Saturday's session about why Democrats have not attended the past three sessions in sufficient numbers to try to power the bill past any Republican opposition. The post-session interview was with a Boston Herald reporter.
Regarding the possibility Monday of getting 81 House members to attend the session, Mariano said, "I believe there will be enough."
The bill (H 4204) before the House was hatched by Democrats on Wednesday following private talks and resolves differences between bills approved by the House (H 4171) on Nov. 8 and the Senate (S 2505) on Nov. 14.
"We already passed this bill. They voted on the bill. The Republicans voted on the bill," Mariano said. "The fact that it didn't come out the way they liked it is where we're at today. Now they're using the dilatory tactics that the Washington Republicans use to hold this up. They want to seem to be relevant and this is the tactic they're using."
The conference committee bill is not the same as the bill the House approved over Republican opposition.
"It's pretty similar," House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said. "There's a couple of differences but nothing that hasn't already been discussed through, whether it was an amendment process or a debate process, these things have already been flushed out prior to getting to this point today."
Since the Republican minority likely would not have the votes to defeat the bill, Democrats say the GOP is just obstructing the will of the majority. However, Democrats have also declined a Republican proposal to call an immediate formal session where the bill could be debate and voted on, and rejected bipartisan calls from lawmakers to advance a "clean supp" features only items with widespread support.
Republican Party Chair Amy Carnevale on Saturday afternoon reissued a call for a formal session.
"Leaders seem more concerned with bypassing debate and votes than allowing previously negotiated provisions to proceed without interruption," Carnevale said. "Included among these provisions already negotiated are important cost of living increases for state union workers. Instead, Democrats are once again choosing to try push back room deals through a process that does not allow for accountability."
While Mariano's team is suggesting that Republicans should let the bill through despite their objections, Republicans are saying Democrats would not be in the position they are in had they not procrastinated while putting the 86-page, 226-section bill together.
Asked when the bill would pass the House, Michlewitz, foreshadowing a potentially eventful day, said, "Hopefully Monday."
Under legislative rules, spending bills die at the end of the first annual session of the two-year General Court. The first annual session ends a month from Saturday, on Jan. 2, 2024, and rules call for only informal sessions through then. The second annual session of this Legislature - the 193rd General Court - begins on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, when formal sessions can resume.
Had Democrats wrapped up work on the spending bill before formal sessions this ended by rule this year on Nov. 15, they wouldn't need to deal with the pesky GOP pushback on the bill.
Mariano said he believes Democrats will be able to overcome any resistance to the bill during informal sessions, the type of sessions where debate is not allowed and controversial bills are usually unable to advance .
"I'm confident we'll get the bill to the governor's desk," Mariano said. "We'll get it done. We'll just have to work around it and we'll get it done."
Said Carnevale, "Informal sessions are for noncontroversial items like renaming bridges and parks — not redirecting taxpayer funding to difficult policy issues without any debate or discussion. Our message - and the message of taxpayers - is simple: Do your job, and do it right. You may have the votes, but you do not have the high ground. The supermajority’s inaction is the sole reason we are stalled today."
House Minority Leader Brad Jones appeared to be grappling Friday with the possibility that Democrats might get a quorum in the House, which would appear to alter the usual informal session dynamic in which a single representative can halt progress of any bill.
"The ability to shut session down, and I think this is one of the things that kind of gets maybe a little misunderstood, is any one member can object," Jones told the News Service Friday. "That makes it sound like it's unanimous consent. Any one member can object via doubting the presence of a quorum? If a quorum is here, there's a quorum ... so how do you object now?"
Asked Saturday night what Republicans will do if Democrats cobble a quorum together on Monday, Jones said, "Let's see how that plays out Monday. Let's see if they have a quorum."
Referring to Mariano's description of Monday as a "work day," Jones noted Democrats didn't get a quorum on two recent work days.
"Thursday and Friday were work days too, at least for most of the world," he said.
Jones mentioned the possibility of doubting any voice vote to advance the bill and asking for a standing vote instead since roll call votes are not permitted during informal sessions.