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Bipartisanship starts to crack as House Rules committee meets

January 5, 2017 GMT

The spirit of bipartisanship both Democrats and Republicans touted on the opening day of the Legislature Monday began to dim Wednesday as party members clashed during a meeting to determine the rules the House operates under.

Near the end of the meeting of the House Rules Committee, Chairman Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Bozeman, admonished Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, over an amendment to the rules that called out a specific member of the House, Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad.

Bennett’s amendment, which identified Cook by his House District, said the moderate Republican could choose up to six bills that were held up in committees and move them to the House floor for consideration with support from a simple majority.

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Letting bills linger in committee is a way to kill legislation.

Bennett’s amendment was an effort to shine a light on an informal agreement by Republicans before the session to let the more moderate members of their party blast bills forward using so-called “silver bullets,” which let committees move bills forward with only a simple majority vote.

Republicans said the agreement shows their party is less divided than it has been in past sessions between its more moderate and conservative factions.

Essmann killed the amendment before it could be voted on, saying that since it called out a single legislator, it violated the decorum of the House and was out of order.

“I am very disappointed that political frustration on the part of the minority has led to a stunt that was targeted at one member of this body,” he said. “In terms of setting the tone for this session I hope that does not continue because it is inappropriate.”

Republicans, who hold a 59-41 majority in the House, clashed with Democrats on the Rules Committee on several other proposed changes to House Resolution 1, which set the rules. The committee approved HR 1 on a 10-7 vote along party lines Wednesday.

Essmann introduced some changes that removed references to state law in the rules that govern how the House operates. He argued that was necessary to not have a Legislature be bound by laws created by past Legislatures and to preserve the power of the body as an independent branch of government. The Senate Rules Committee is considering similar action.

“This Legislature can no more tell the Supreme Court how it can set its rules and we can no more tell the executive branch how to set up its rules and they cannot set up ours. That’s what separate but equal branches of government are about.”

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Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena and the House minority leader, said she felt the move robbed the Legislative process of transparency.

Bennett said the vote was “the wrong way to start off the Legislature.”

“I feel like we did have a great opportunity to create rules to ensure all voices were heard, especially the public,” he said. “I think we have decided we are above the law in a lot of situations.”

The resolution now moves to the House floor for consideration. The House is currently operating under temporary rules.

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