A bill to allow same-sex couples to form civil unions died on the calendar late Tuesday, taking down with it more than 30 other measures in a dramatic game of political chicken in which no one would blink.
When Republican Speaker Frank McNulty acknowledged there was an impasse and abruptly ended his news conference on the House floor, Coloradans watching in the gallery started chanting: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
At least five House Republicans supported the measure, meaning if the bill had been debated it would have passed, which is why some observers were so infuriated.
The stunning turn of events on the second-to-last day of the 2012 session had been brewing since Thursday, when a Republican lawmaker voted with Democrats to pass the civil unions bill out of committee.
Social conservatives who believed the bill would die in the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee for the second year in a row were enraged and lobbied McNulty and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens to use every procedure to kill Senate Bill 2.
That’s exactly what happened, but in the process of making sure civil unions died on the calendar, a slew of other bills became casualties too.
Among the bills ensnared in the tug-of-war in the House: $20 million worth of water projects statewide and a bill that sets a standard for driving while stoned.
Throughout the evening, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and a supporter of gay rights, worked with legislative leaders to try to break the impasse.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get that special Hickenlooper magic at the end,” said House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.
Those in the gallery upset at the bill’s death continued to voice their displeasure. Everyone was kicked out of the gallery after someone yelled, “I hope you (expletive) die!”
Longtime veterans of Capitol politics could not remember a more suspenseful end to a session, which by law must end at midnight tonight.
During his brief news conference, McNulty did not detail the failed evening-long negotiations that began when he called for a recess about 9 p.m.
“I don’t blame the Democrats. I certainly don’t blame any member of our Republican caucus,” he said. “These things happen. But the timing is such we were not able to work that impasse.”
It’s the first time in days McNulty has not pointed fingers at the Senate Democrats, who he earlier said were to blame for the clock’s running out. He said they introduced the bill on opening day, Jan. 11, but didn’t send it to the House until April 27.
That was the same point Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, made earlier in the evening when he and Ferrandino held dueling news conferences on the House floor.
“Let’s be clear: The Democrats in the state House are playing procedural games to have one heard over every other bill,” Waller said. “We need to carefully consider what’s before us right now. Careful consideration means taking time.”
Waller refused to respond to questions about why Republicans were filibustering, including debating a bill on trans-fats in school lunchrooms in excruciating and sometimes hilarious fashion.
Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, practically screamed as he pounded on the lectern.
“Not a one of you has the courage to vote against chocolate!” he said.
The civil unions bill had to be debated Tuesday in order to qualify for a vote today on the final day of the session. The same is true for the other bills that died on the calendar.
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said the bill was heard late because the speaker pro tem, Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, was considering sponsoring the bill and asked him to wait until after the GOP state convention in mid-April. Priola said he wanted to make sure he didn’t have a primary opponent. Although Priola supports the bill, he did not sign on as the House sponsor, a role Ferrandino accepted.
“They have done this to themselves,” Steadman said. “They have brought dishonor and ill repute to the House. They ought to be ashamed.”
The fate of a civil unions bill has dominated the session ever since it passed the House Judiciary Committee last week with the support of Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland.
Supporters of civil unions rallied Tuesday outside the Capitol.
“No matter what happens today or tomorrow, the unspoken truth in this whole debate is we will win,” Jace Woodrum, deputy director for One Colorado, the state’s largest gay-rights group.
“Whether it is today or tomorrow or next year or the next, we will win. Gay and lesbian couples in this state will have full protection under the law. We all know it, and everybody in this building knows it,” he said.
The bill passed the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday afternoon after a brief walkout by some Democrats, who questioned why the committee was hearing House bills that had no chance of getting to the Senate in time.
At the rally, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, debunked as myth the theory Republicans didn’t have time to pass civil unions.
“What is in question is not time,” he said, “but courage.”