DENVER– Outmaneuvered over the last six days in a legislative chess game centered on a gay-rights civil unions bill here, the Colorado Speaker of the House on Tuesday, the second-to-last day of the session, effectively turned over the board. Frank McNulty, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, walked out of the House at roughly 9 p.m. and stayed away for more than two hours, letting a recess run all the while and killing the civil unions bill and nearly 40 other bills in the process.
With only three hours left to consider a long slate of bills and with a GOP filibuster in full swing, House Democrats and their Republican allies sent Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, to the well to make a “rise and report” motion that would have moved civil unions legislation on to the agenda by postponing consideration of bills that could wait until Wednesday.
Suddenly the protracted performance at the front of the chamber, where Republican lawmakers held forth absurdly on transfat bans and license plate proposals, ground to a halt. Media gathered round Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the civil unions bill. He explained that the votes were lined up for civil unions and that that bill and the rest of the slate would be addressed if Republican leadership would act on Levy’s motion. The ball was in their court, he said.
Republican Mark Waller, the assistant majority leader from Colorado Springs, stepped up to respond. He said that Democrats were hijacking the process and that all of the bills on the agenda deserved careful consideration.
“Let’s be clear, the Democrats are playing procedural games to place one bill over all the others,” he said.
“Isn’t a filibuster a procedural game to kill that one bill?” asked a reporter.
Waller didn’t respond. Republicans had been denying for hours that they were filibustering, even as Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, read whole sections of text into the record, calling out punctuation marks, and Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, railed theatrically about how school lunch regulations amounted to a step on the road to Nazism.
“Why, you ask, why do I go on like this about a small amendment?” Gardner said winkingly at one point during a speech on the school lunch bill. “Because it’s a small amendment but a large issue.”
The chamber groaned on one side and laughed on the other. Gardner grinned.
As the recess stretched on and reporters tweeted updates on McNulty’s alleged whereabouts, lobbyists for all variety of bills paced outside the chamber, furiously tapping at their mobile devices.
A major water bill sponsored by Republican Senator Scott Renfroe died, as did a controversial high-profile bill that would have established legal limits for driving while under the influence of marijuana.
Democrats eventually handed out a list of the 37 bills that fell victim to the civil unions stalemate.
Social conservatives and religious organizations like Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family had been pressuring Republican leaders in the House to kill the civil unions bill for weeks. But McNulty seemed at a loss when Republicans on three committees last week and Tuesday defected and voted to advance the bill to the floor of the House for full debate.
It appears the filibuster led by Gardner was the last line of defense.
According to some of the capitol reporters’ minute-to-minute digital dispatches, McNulty at one point was on a walk outside the capitol, then he was allegedly in the hallway outside his office conferring and drinking scotch with Gov. John Hickenlooper, a civil unions supporter, who came to the capitol at 10 p.m. to try and broker a deal.
“The Democrats could have done this three years ago, when they controlled both chambers and the governor’s office. Why did they have to put it on the Republicans to pass it?” said one Republican staffer, a refrain on the right for the last few days.
Ferrandino answered that question for reporters earlier in the day after the Appropriations Committee passed the civil unions bill with one Republican vote cast by Evergreen Rep. Cheri Gerou.
“Hindsight is 20/20 but the fact is attitudes in the state and in the nation have changed at a rapid pace in the last three years,” he said. “We wouldn’t have had the public support. In fact, we wouldn’t be here today if Republicans weren’t supporting the bill with us. ”
When McNulty at last emerged from the halls outside the chamber, he appeared in shirt sleeves, cuffs rolled, his hair mussed. He moved slowly toward the crowd of capitol reporters who had been waiting again at the front of the room like statues for ten minutes with microphones and tape recorders and notepads and cameras at the ready.
He said that the civil unions bill was a “casualty of the impasse” that had bogged down the chamber.
A flurry of questions followed to which McNulty said something again about an “impasse” and getting back to “the work of the House.”
He walked away from reporters as cries of “Shame on you! Shame on you!” rained down for full minutes from the gallery before security cleared it out.
McNulty put his suit coat back on but no more real work was done in the House. Levy withdrew her motion and Majority Leader Amy Stephens, another Colorado Springs Republican and one of several Colorado Republicans facing heated primary challenges this year, called for adjournment.
After years spent in the legislative trenches making their case and successfully winning over key Republican lawmakers, the chief lobbyists for the civil unions bill at gay-rights group One Colorado decided to focus on November. The organization put out a fighting-mad fundraising letter minutes after the gavel pounded for the last time of the night.
“I am beyond angry, and you should be, too,” wrote Executive Director Brad Clark in an email. “House leadership just shut down the Colorado House to effectively kill the Colorado Civil Union Act. After promising a fair hearing and process, House leadership decided that it was more important to play politics than do the people’s business. Now, they must be held accountable.
“We have to keep fighting…. Although November seems far away, our work to change the legislature starts today. And you can be a part of electing a pro-equality majority.”
For a while after the events in the chamber concluded, shell-shocked lawmakers, staffers, reporters and lobbyists shuffled around in the hallways, looking at their phone screens and at one another. Senators were talking about whether there would be conferencing between the chambers on some last-minute bills or whether all of that should be written off in the wake of the historic House standoff they had just witnessed. Then everyone slowly trailed out of the building.[ Image: Speaker Frank McNulty via WikiCommons ]