Posted: June 29, 2003
SHOWDOWN ON HOUSE BILL 99
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
The drama was not so much on the floor as off
it, when the Delaware House of Representatives considered a gay
anti-discrimination bill last Thursday night.
The question was not whether Rep. William A.
Oberle Jr., the Republican who was the prime sponsor, had rounded up
enough votes to pass the measure, commonly called by its number as
House Bill 99.
Oberle had said any number of times that he
wouldn't bring up the legislation unless he could count 21 "yes"
votes for a majority in the 41-member chamber -- barring, of course,
a blindsiding double-cross. This was, after all, Legislative Hall,
which is notorious for such shenanigans.
The question was whether Reps. Pamela S. Maier
and G. Robert Quillen, a pair of Oberle's fellow Republicans who had
promised him their support, were too sick to stay in Dover for the
debate and the roll call. Oberle had no votes to spare, and as the
House session dragged into the evening, Maier and Quillen were
spending more time outside the chamber than in it.
"It was all about courage," Oberle said. "It
was amazing what they were putting themselves through."
Even more nerve-wracking, control of the pace
and agenda belonged to Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Republican
who was the chief opponent. Just the night before, Oberle was forced
to shelve the bill when Quillen was unable to stick it out.
The time was getting critical. The day was the
next-to-last of the 2003 legislative session, which by law must end
on June 30. To be sure, the bill still could be considered when the
General Assembly returns in January, but that would move it into an
election year. While lawmakers reflexively tend to flinch at
controversial legislation at any time, it becomes even more
Maier and Quillen endured. Oberle got his roll
call with exactly 21 "yes" votes, forwarding House Bill 99 to the
Senate for its consideration and setting up a new drama for the last
legislative session on Monday.
As of the weekend, it was unclear whether the
bill's backers would try to bring it before the Senate, which is
scheduled to meet from 6 p.m. until sometime after midnight. While
the election year looms, there is also the prickly nature of the
Senate to consider.
The House has had six months for the bill. The
Senate is supposed to do it in six hours?
As was the situation in the House, there are
said to be enough votes in the 21-member Senate for passage, if the
legislation can get to the floor. Nor is there any doubt that Gov.
Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat, would sign the bill into law
if the Senate approved it. She threw the weight of her office behind
it at a press conference in May.
"We have the votes to pass it," said Sen.
Margaret Rose Henry, a Democrat who is a sponsor. "That's not the
issue. The issue is having it worked."
The House's consideration of the gay
equal-rights bill appeared to fall on an auspicious day. That
morning the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law in a
landmark victory for gay rights, although the decision never was
mentioned overtly in the legislature.
Instead, the focus was on what time the vote
would come. The House held caucuses. It offered tributes. It plodded
through mundane measures. Afternoon turned to evening, and the
health of Maier and Quillen arose as a prime topic of conversation.
Increasingly there also was speculation about
whether Smith deliberately was delaying the vote. He certainly was
accused of it. "What he did to the two of them, from what I've
heard, is unconscionable and reprehensible. There are things more
important than strategy," said Sen. Karen E. Peterson, a Democrat.
Smith denied it. He said any delay was the
result of negotiations he was holding with Oberle in an effort to
reach a compromise on a series of amendments he planned to offer.
There was something like four lawyers involved.
"I'm disappointed that anybody would think
that," Smith said.
The House finally began its debate about 6:30
p.m., with the roll call coming about an hour and 15 minutes later.
With the vote a matter of history now, Smith's colleagues there are
inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Oberle said the first night, when Quillen had
to go home, delay might have been on Smith's mind, but Oberle
acknowledged the lengthy negotiations as a factor on the second
night. "I'm not going to draw any conclusions as to whether it was a
tactic. I'd hate to think that," Oberle said.
Quillen was unavailable for comment over the
weekend -- the message on his answering machine said he was away for
some rest -- but Maier echoed Oberle on whether the delay was
deliberate. "I would hope not. He [Smith] is supposed to represent
the caucus," Maier said.
As to why Maier held on for the vote, she said
she did it because she had to.
"When you commit to something, you want to
carry through. When Bill [Oberle] had the votes, you just had to be
there. Mind over matter," she said.
Delay, deliberate or otherwise, did not work
in the House. Now it is time to see whether delay has a part to play
in the Senate.
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