Posted: June 29, 2003


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 pronounced then.

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.