Two weeks to the day after his first year as Speaker of the House unraveled when some of his fellow Republicans seized control of HB-1 from his team on the floor of the House, Chuck Kleckley has been looking for ways to reassert his relevance to the proceedings in the House.
With the comments he made on Thursday afternoon after Democratic Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin offered a motion to table HB-61, Speaker Kleckley allowed the retirement bill to survive by being sent to a House/Senate conference committee but that win undermined his credibility at the very time it will be most needed in the House.
HB-61 is one of the core elements of the Republican attack on the retirement security of public employees. Like the rest of the Jindal administration retirement package, the bill has struggled to find support. It has been heavily amended, particularly in the Senate.
The bill was on the House calendar on Thursday for a vote on whether members there would consent to changes made in the bill in the Senate.
The changes made in the Senate did not sit well with many in the House. The bill itself has been contentious since it was first considered. Sensing an opportunity to kill a bad bill that the legislative process had not materially improved, Rep. Jones offered his motion to “table the subject matter.”
Under the House rules, the introduction of the motion should have cut off all discussion and triggered an immediate vote. Instead, speaking from the Speaker’s Chair, Kleckley warned that supporting the motion to table would kill the bill because it would require a two-thirds vote to bring it off the calendar in the remaining days of the session. Kleckley knew the bill would squeak through the House if it passed at all and that he and the administration had no chance of mustering 70 votes that would be needed to bring it back to the floor if it was tabled.
Jones’ motion to table narrowly failed on a vote of 44-47 with 14 members absent or not voting.
Immediately after the vote, House Democratic Caucus leader John Bel Edwards confronted Kleckley about his violation of the rules. Voices were raised. A few minutes later, the House rejected the Senate amendments by a vote of 49-43 with 13 members absent or not voting.
In a session where Republicans have repeatedly manipulated the legislative process when they have been in danger of not getting their way, Kleckley’s comment on HB-61 inflamed Democrats and reportedly even angered some Republicans.
“Former Speaker Jim Tucker was a partisan but he knew where to draw the line between his role as Speaker and his role as a member,” one Democrat said. “Tucker would leave the Speaker’s chair when he wanted to engage on an issue. Kleckley had no business making those gratuitous comments on Sam’s motion. He violated the House’s own rules so that he could preserve the administration’s interests.”
“The Speaker is not supposed to engage in debates from the chair and the rules say there is to be no debate or comment on motions to table,” said another. “I believe he damaged himself and the Speakership with those comments.”
Democrats believe that in so close a vote, Kleckley’s comments moved a vote or two in a situation where no comments were allowed.
“They’ve got majorities and, if the legislation could stand on its own merits, there would be no need to break the rules like this,” a Democrat who would not speak for the record said. “The fact that they cannot respect the process reflects poorly on the quality of the leadership on the Republican side.”
The incident sapped what little good will that remained in the House heading into the final week of what has been a bruising session. While the early bruises were dished out by Republicans with Democrats and our constituents on the receiving end, Republicans and the administration have had a much bumpier ride of late. It appears to be wearing heavily on them.
Instead of re-establishing his authority, Kleckley’s abuse of the House rules on Jones’ motion to table has undermined his leadership at a time when the Chamber is in desperate need of it.
The House returns to work on Tuesday, after the Memorial Day holiday.
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Originally posted: May 25, 2012