House Republicans Complain Their Voices Aren’t Being Heard

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(Host) In the waning days of the Legislature, House Republicans are trying to use their limited numbers to influence legislation and make political points.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, members of the minority party complain that their voices are not being heard.

(Dillon) In the Vermont House, the speaker gets to appoint members to conference committees that iron out differences in bills with the Senate.

The appointments are rarely challenged. But when House Speaker Shap Smith named three Democrats to the House negotiating team on the health care bill, Republicans fought back.

(Turner) "So just because this body time and time again does something wrong doesn’t make it right, and that’s what we stand for today."

(Dillon) That’s Milton Republican Don Turner, his party’s leader in the House. Turner called for a vote to challenge the speaker’s appointments. Outnumbered almost two to one, the Republicans lost. And after the vote, Turner complained that his party’s views had been marginalized.

(Turner) "It is disappointing given the importance of this bill that the rules of the House were disregarded in order to silence the voice of the minority."   

(Dillon) But the minority can have a loud voice in one important piece of legislative business. Republican support is needed to get the three-quarters majority required to advance bills without the usual 24-hour delay on the legislative calendar. This is known as suspending the rules – and it becomes especially important in the waning days of the session, when quick action is needed for adjournment.

But Turner says he will not support suspending the rules on big issues, such as the appropriations bill.

(Turner) "This is the one thing we have is the rule suspension. And I don’t think it’s our issue when they have plenty of time to get these bills out and they don’t. So what I wanted to do early in the session is say, ‘Look it, if it’s an important bill or if there’s controversy in our caucus… we’re not going to suspend the rules.’"

(Dillon) Speaker Smith says he’s built time into the schedule for Republicans to study bills for at least 24 hours before they’re voted on.

But he says he will need Republican support for rules suspension at the end of the session.

(Smith) "My concern is that they may move the goal posts. Previously they said they needed 24 hours to look at a bill. And what I’m worried about if we have a bill out 24 hours before we ask for rules suspension and they decide not to grant rules suspension anyway, that could actually put us in a situation where we may not get done next week."

(Dillon) Stowe Republican Heidi Scheuermann says her party is trying to wield some influence on big legislation. She says the health care bill – which could lead to a publicly financed single payer system – will affect everyone in the state. But she said the vote to challenge the speaker was not an indication of tension building in the last days of the session.

(Scheuermann) "But I think it’s more a showing of real frustration, maybe, on our part. Frustration with how, that the views of the minority and we are in the minority, so that’s clear. I think it’s just frustration."

(Dillon) But if they refuse to suspend the rules and advance bills, the question is whether that frustration will risk Republicans being blamed for prolonging the session.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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