The top Republican in the Massachusetts House on Wednesday blocked the passage of an emergency rules package designed to allow remote voting in the chamber, setting off a rare — and vitriolic — rift between Democratic leaders and the chamber’s small GOP caucus.
The House appeared poised to approve an order with 20 new emergency rules reshaping how representatives pass laws in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a day after parts of the package were changed amid concerns from Republicans and progressive Democrats.
The order included allowing remote voting, a novel step for a body with roots in Colonial times, and would set a new July 1 deadline for the House to produce a budget proposal. Once the rules were finalized, the 160-seat body was slated on Thursday to debate and vote on, via conference call, a bill Governor Charlie Baker filed that would allow the state more flexibility in borrowing money.
The vote would have been the House’s first formal session since the pandemic upended daily life last month and after some Democrats had prodded legislative leaders to move more quickly in finding ways to allow formal lawmaking to resume.
But the GOP leader, Representative Bradley H. Jones, on Wednesday used a procedural move to block its passage during an informal session, in which any dissent stops a bill from passing. It came moments after House Democrats denied an amendment he filed that would have lifted the rules once Baker’s borrowing bill passed. The current draft of the rules keeps them in place as late as January.
Jones, a North Reading Republican, said he’s open to discussions but is primarily concerned with a rule that effectively limits how often most representatives can be recognized to speak. It’s a move, he said, that promises to cut off crucial rebuttals amid debate. Another provision mandates that lawmakers who want to speak on any bill notify House leaders by 10 a.m. the day of the vote.
“I’m perfectly OK with remote voting," Jones said. “But I don’t think in order to achieve remote voting that you need to sacrifice many of the principles that are hallmarks of our democracy.”
“The order is about power,” he added of Democratic leaders. “It’s an example of let’s use this crisis to achieve more power.”
Less than 20 minutes after Wednesday’s session ended, House Speaker Robert DeLeo released a sharp statement accusing House Republicans of trying to enhance their own very limited power by using a "partisan political move . . . at the expense of the taxpayer and the safety of the public.”
By blocking the rules, he said, the House can’t approve the “time-sensitive and critical” borrowing legislation, which requires a formal roll call vote to advance.
“The Republican action could imperil the state’s cash flow, require cuts to services for vulnerable populations during a public health crisis, and harm the state’s bond rating, which will only add to the future cost of borrowing,” DeLeo said, saying Jones’s amendment “forced us” to call lawmakers into the chamber and put “at risk House Members, staff, and the public at large.”
“This is an unparalleled example of both recklessness and fiscal irresponsibility,” DeLeo said.
Democrats hold a super majority in the House, leaving the chamber’s 31-member GOP caucus and Jones, the minority leader since 2003, with little sway beyond forcing recorded roll call votes or debate on legislation.
It made Wednesday’s move, and the fiery public response from DeLeo, all the more remarkable.
“The speaker’s statement was as inflammatory as I’ve seen out of his office,” Jones said, calling it "completely counterproductive and demonstrably false.”
DeLeo said Jones was “briefed extensively” on the rules changes and incorporated some of the House Republicans’ recommendations into an amended order released Tuesday. That included backtracking from a controversial provision that would have made it more difficult for representatives to force a roll call vote.
The original proposal would have required 25 percent of the House to agree to holding a roll call during remote voting — a bar that would make it impossible for the Republican caucus to insist on a recorded vote. House leaders ultimately let the language revert back to the House’s current rule, which requires 10 percent.
The change appeared to appease both House Democrats as well as progressive groups that, like Republicans, said the original language could stifle debate.
The House’s 11-page rules proposal followed weeks of discussion about how representatives could restart formal voting amid the pandemic, which has closed the State House to the public and left legislators to rely on informal, debate-less sessions to pass bills.
Lawmakers in at least 14 other states have already changed their procedures to allow for remote participation or voting since March, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The House plan calls for a small number of representatives to remain in the chamber for a vote and the vast majority of lawmakers to follow along through a public live stream, using conference call lines to dial in and cast their votes. Designated monitors in the chamber would then collect and submit the votes to the House clerk.
Representative Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat who also sits on the working group that drafted the rules, acknowledged the challenges lawmakers faced in trying to move voting to conference calls.
“It’s going to be more limited. There’s no way we can replicate a live and in-person floor debate,” Hogan said. "We are trying to put these together thoughtfully. We’re hoping this isn’t going to be forever.”
For weeks, lawmakers have relied on back-channel negotiations and informal sessions to continue moving legislation to Baker’s desk, including bills that waived the state’s MCAS requirement and undid a weeklong waiting period for unemployment benefits in response to the health crisis. Last week, lawmakers passed a bill that allows for notaries public to remotely perform work central to estate planning, mortgages, and more.