HELENA – Republican state Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, called it “law of the jungle.” Democratic House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter of Helena said it’s just a matter of interpreting the House rules.
Hunter, however, was able to muster 52 House members who agreed with him, so he won the argument Wednesday, as 41 Democrats and 11 Republicans used – and interpreted – the rules to their advantage to advance one of the biggest bills of the 2015 Legislature.
The bill is Senate Bill 405, which would expand Medicaid in Montana to offer government-funded health coverage to an estimated 45,000 low-income citizens over the next four years.
Republican leaders at the Legislature had vowed to bottle up and kill SB405, or any Medicaid expansion bill that expands the program for able-bodied adults.
Yet everyone knew not all Republican lawmakers opposed Medicaid expansion – and that a rules fight likely would determine if that sliver of pro-Medicaid Republicans could team up with minority Democrats to form a majority to advance SB405.
That rules fight began Tuesday and culminated Wednesday, moving SB405 to the House floor on Thursday, where it will be debated and voted on.
But nothing came easy for Medicaid-expansion opponents or supporters, as the bill straggled through a gauntlet of a half-dozen floor votes, two meetings of the House Rules Committee and numerous impromptu rules discussions on the floor, among key leaders of both parties, spread over two hours.
“We all know what the subject matter is here,” Hunter said moments before the final 52-48 vote that brought SB405 to the floor. “I think we ought to have it here (on the floor), and have a good debate and vote it up or down.”
The argument centered over whether Democrats could trump a rule that says it takes 60 votes to override an “adverse committee report” on the bill.
The House Human Services Committee, stacked with staunch Medicaid-expansion opponents, tagged SB405 with the adverse report Tuesday afternoon and sent it to the floor.
Hunter, however, said he had told House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, last week that SB405 is one of six bills that Democrats had the right to designate as needing only 51 votes to bring to the floor – a “silver bullet” request.
Knudsen overruled Hunter and was upheld by the House Rules Committee, which always upholds the majority leadership. But the full House can override the rules committee on a majority vote – and that’s what it did, twice, on Wednesday, by 52-48 votes.
In the final meeting of the Rules Committee on Wednesday, Knudsen conceded defeat, saying “we all know what’s going to happen,” but that nothing in the rules said anything about a silver-bullet request trumping the adverse committee report.
“I think this whole discussion that somehow it was implied in the rule that the silver bullets would trump the adverse committee report, I think that’s just patently false,” he said.
Yet, as the Legislature’s chief legal counsel, Todd Everts, said in the first Rules Committee meeting, a majority of the House gets to interpret the rules – and that’s what Hunter and company ended up doing, voting 52-48 to say the silver-bullet designation did indeed override the adverse committee report.
“Those rules were put into effect by a majority of the body,” Everts said. “In the past, it’s come down to a matter of interpretation. … The ultimate determination comes back to the majority of the body itself.”