Civil unions bill dies in frenzied final hours

Unrelated bills caught in crossfire also killed

DENVER — Colorado’s House of Representatives suffered a stunning breakdown of order Tuesday night during a fight over civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

The civil unions bill died after a Republican filibuster, and some two dozen unrelated bills got caught in the crossfire and died, including the annual water projects bill, which this year is funding a purchase of water rights in the Animas-La Plata Project.

With the session ending Wednesday, bills had to pass an initial vote by midnight Tuesday to stay alive. Senators turned their attention Wednesday to attempting to salvage dead bills by amending them onto ones that remained alive.

“The goal here is to finish the work of the session in a very respectful, dignified way,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont.

But Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said the damage had been done.

“I think the whole institution took a critical hit in the public’s eye (Tuesday),” Roberts said.

She urged senators not to play fast and loose with the rules in order to rescue bills the House killed.

Tuesday night saw a bizarre turn of events in the House.

The Republican leadership, which was using delay tactics to block the civil unions bill from getting a vote, lost control of the chamber when Democrats recruited two dissident Republicans to help them take over the House agenda.

Rather than give it up, Republicans put the chamber into recess at 9 p.m. Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, returned more than two hours later to tell reporters that the House had reached an impasse.

“It is unfortunate that there will be items that do not receive consideration from the House tonight because of this impasse,” McNulty said. “I don’t blame the Democrats, certainly don’t blame any member of our Republican caucus. These things happen.”

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said Republicans could have moved on at any time, but they stayed in recess for more than two hours while the minutes ticked away on the Legislature’s yearly session.

“The impasse is that we see the leadership doesn’t want to bring up Senate Bill 2 (the civil unions bill). That’s the impasse. They don’t want to have the debate,” Ferrandino said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper met separately with both McNulty and Ferrandino.

In a brief interview, the Herald asked the governor if he was trying to break the logjam.

“I’m just trying to figure out how this building works,” Hickenlooper said.

Ferrandino said the governor did his best to resolve the fight.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get that Hickenlooper magic,” Ferrandino said.

It was a night that saw many broken taboos. The crowd in the House balcony loudly booed and chanted “shame” when McNulty announced shortly after 11 p.m. that the civil unions bill would not pass.

As House sergeants began to clear the gallery, one person said, “I hope you all (expletive) die.”

On the House floor, both parties resorted to extraordinary – yet legal – maneuvers to get their way. Republicans talked slowly and at length on unrelated bills in an attempt to kill the civil unions bill by pushing it past midnight.

Democrats staged a coup of sorts, opposing the Republican leadership on routine procedural motions that the majority party relies on to keep the agenda flowing.

Democrats were only able to win the motions because two Republicans who support civil unions backed them up. This effectively let Democrats wrest control of the chamber from Republicans, who hold a one-vote majority.

Thirty bills needed to pass an initial vote in the House on Tuesday night in order to be cleared for a final vote today. More than two dozen of them did not make it, including a bill by Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, to criminalize the sale of bath salts, a synthetic drug. Other casualties were a bill that would have ended zero-tolerance school discipline rules and one that set standards for when a medical marijuana user is too high to drive.

Legislators were attempting to revive the bath salts and school discipline bill Wednesday.

If the civil unions bill had been brought up for a vote, it would have passed, thanks to support from a handful of Republicans.

GOP elections lawyer Mario Nicolais, who spearheaded the party’s efforts to draw new legislative districts last year, thinks Tuesday night’s events will cost Republicans their majority in the House.

Nicolais supports civil unions and said it’s a given the bill will pass sooner or later, but the GOP majority is not so certain.

“You can’t break the representative form of government and not expect to pay the piper,” Nicolais said.

The session ends today, although the governor may have to call the Legislature back into a special session to resurrect the bills that died Tuesday night.