A committee of state lawmakers voted on party lines Tuesday to keep the super-majority rule for removing a tabled bill from committee in the Montana House of Representatives.
Six Republicans on the Legislative Council, including Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, beat the five Democrats and squashed the recommendation that “blasting” a bill from a House committee should require a simple majority vote from the chamber floor.
Arguments in favor of the blast rule are based on lawmakers desires to avoid multiple debates on bills that have little chance of passage. The rule’s detractors call it undemocratic.
Under the current membership, the House’s long-held blast rule favors the 59-seat Republican majority. Bills tabled in House committees require Democrats to convince 19 Republicans to remove it back to the House floor. Republicans need just one Democrat to do the same, but rarely do with their majority extending into committees.
In contrast, the state Senate requires a simple majority to blast a bill.
“This seems to work well in the Senate, just a simple majority, and I think the same rule would be appropriate in the House,” said Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, the only comment made before the vote Tuesday.
During the 2015 session, a faction of Republicans was accused of forcing Speaker Knudsen to officially give House Democrats six attempts, known as “silver bullets,” to move a bill out of committee and back to the floor on a simple majority vote.
That same faction of Republicans later passed major legislation with Democratic votes, including a Medicaid expansion bill that was brought to the House floor by Democrats using a silver bullet.
What’s not clear is if House Democrats will get any silver bullets for the 2017 session that starts in January.
Unity among House Republicans appeared strong during their first caucus on Monday. They elected Rep. Ron Ehli of Hamilton as their majority leader after he promised that all Republicans, moderate and conservative, would be heard under his leadership and that he would work to keep the caucus unified.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Knudsen said Tuesday that he would have no comment on Democrats getting silver bullets until the Rules Committee meets on Dec. 7. But on Monday, Knudsen did say he was “cautiously optimistic” about GOP unity, which could prevent a deal in which Democrats again get silver bullets.
“The conversations (with other Republicans) have been very positive. I can tell you in the two sessions previous where I’ve been in leadership, this has started off on the best foot so far,” Knudsen said. “And look, a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s no money. Everyone can do math. There’s not going to be a bunch of money to throw at extra projects and deal with. I think everyone recognizes that and everyone, tentatively, wants to get along. We’ve had a couple of rough sessions of in-fighting and I don’t think anyone wants to continue that.”