Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray made clear Monday that his minority caucus is looking for a way to seize control of the Senate and force votes on a pair of controversial bills blocked by the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus. The move to go to the 9th Order of Business, which lets lawmakers bring bills directly to the floor from committee with a simple majority vote, could open a Pandora’s Box for the majority and would have to occur before Wednesday’s 5 p.m. cutoff.
At issue are an abortion-insurance bill, which has support from at least 25 Senate members, and a bill allowing financial aid eligibility for undocumented youths brought to the U.S. at a young age and who want to attend state colleges after graduating locally from high school. Both House Bill 1044 (abortion) and House Bill 1817 (financial aid) passed the House and got bottled up in Senate committees where chairs have refused to bring either one up for a vote.
Pressure is building on Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, to break from his coalition and vote in favor of the Reproductive Parity Act, which requires insurers to cover abortion services if the policy also covers maternity. Tom is a former “Shining Star” award winner from Planned Parenthood and he spoke strongly in favor of the parity bill earlier this year at a Capitol steps rally sponsored by reproductive rights groups.
But so far, Tom isn’t yielding to his own seemingly strong preference for the bill, instead hewing to what keeps his coalition strong and united – and him in power as majority leader.
Of course Tom knows the 9th Order can get hairy. Going to 9th Order is exactly what Tom, two other Democrats and then-minority Republicans did in a March 2012 coup that let them seize control of the budget process and pass a budget right under the then-majority Democrats’ noses.
“The Ninth Order is a vote on the DREAM Act and on the Reproductive Parity Act,” Murray said during a press conference on Monday. “It’s not our first place to go, it’s not the way I usually do business individually as a legislator, but we’re getting late here, we’re in the second to last week of session.”
Murray said during a press conference that the goal in going public before the maneuver was to avoid the confusion brought by surprise moves.
“There are members willing to vote on the bills who do not want to break procedurally,” Murray added in his press conference, which included Senate Democratic Caucus chair Karen Fraser of Thurston County and Democratic Floor Leader David Frockt of Seattle.
But Tom was adamant talking to reporters Monday that the bills aren’t going anywhere. “We’re not going to the 9th. Once you go to the 9th there’s no control over what comes up,” he said.
Asked if he was confident his caucus would hold strong and prevent the 9th order move – despite lacking Republican Sen. Mike Carrell, who is receiving medical treatments – Tom reiterated that he could not go there.
Tom also noted that he had voted against bringing up the Reproductive Parity Act in 2012 when the budget coalition went to the 9th Order after agreeing they would not take up more than the budget.
With conservative Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove committed to vote on Sen. Carrell’s behalf during his illness, Democrats need two votes – and the likely targets are Tom and Republican Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, who also spoke in favor of the Reproductive Parity Act at the Capitol rally.
“They hold the keys now. There’s nothing left,” Planned Parenthood’s leader Elaine Rose said Monday after what she described as a “frank conversation with Sen. Tom.” “I said if you have another idea, I am all ears,’’ Rose recalled.
“He needs to walk the talk,’’ Rose added of Tom. “He spoke in favor of the RPA, quite passionately I might add. So he needs to do the right thing. There is no other way forward.’’
Democrats offered multiple versions of the bill in bids to get around Republican opposition this year – with Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens offering a second bill once Republican Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley backed out of his very public promise to give Hobbs’ first bill a hearing in the judiciary committee.
But instead of referring the second bill to Hobbs’ insurance committee, it went to a healthcare committee where Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, gave it a hearing on April 1 but adjourned before allowing a vote.
Rose noted that Hobbs has a letter with a Senate-majority of 25 member signatures in support of the insurance mandate. “I think this bill has been subject to more machinations than any other bill I’ve seen,’’ Rose said.
Washington health insurers now cover abortion as a matter of course if they also cover maternity. But state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, a Democrat, says there is an issue going forward under Obamacare whether insurers will follow suit. He wants the bill passed to provide certainty.
Washington would be the only state with such a mandate in state law. Opponents contend a mandate would infringe on rights of conscience for private insurance plans run by religious groups, or that a consumer opposed to abortion would be forced to pay for its inclusion in coverage.
Rose said her group has tallied 11,000 individual contacts to legislators on the issue. “It’s the right bill to pass… It allows women to make decisions about their pregnancies, not insurance companies and not the government,’’ Rose said.
It may come as a surprise to some – and it helps to show what a conundrum the Legislature is in – but Rose also gave credit to Tom and Litzow for trying to bring the measure forward:
“Sen. Tom and Sen. Litzow have been working very hard to get this bill through. They have a very difficult caucus,” she said. “I give them credit for that.”
The clock is still ticking.