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Thursday, December 5, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Spin Control: How the vaxx bill was resurrected

OLYMPIA – Blossoms fill the cherry trees on the Capitol Campus in the spring. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – Blossoms fill the cherry trees on the Capitol Campus in the spring. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

On Easter Sunday, it seems appropriate to write about a resurrection.

Not the divine kind that inspires the day, but the legislative kind that occurred last Wednesday on what’s known as the “vaxx” bill that seemed dead to supporters.

With an outbreak of measles in Vancouver, Washington, the question of whether to remove the personal exemption for measles vaccinations has been among the most contentious of the session. It’s an intense struggle between those who view this as an issue of personal choice and those who view it as an issue of public health and safety. The House passed a bill in early March removing the personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, while leaving the current religious and medical exemptions in place.

The bill passed a Senate committee, but didn’t come up for a full vote for more than a week. But 5 p.m. Wednesday was a hard deadline for passing the vaxx bill and dozens of others. If the Senate didn’t begin debating it by then, the vaxx bill would take a dirt nap until next year. If it was formally introduced before then, supporters and opponents could debate it into the wee hours of the morning if they wanted.

Wednesday morning, Democrats announced the bill they would bring to the floor just before 5 p.m. would be a very popular plan to create a new psychiatric teaching hospital at the University of Washington. Still, the vaxx bill could come up any time before that, and under Senate rules, if debate starts it could be suspended just before 5 p.m. so the hospital bill could be introduced and passed, and the Senate could go back to fighting over the vaxx bill.

The problem was, a compromise on the vaxx bill that could pass the Senate and not be rejected when it returned for House approval was still being worked on. It wasn’t until 4:40 p.m. that Senate Democrats sent out word they wanted to bring the vaxx bill to the floor. Senate Republicans tried to force a bill on a sexual assault task force to the floor. Democrats objected, Republicans objected to their objections, and eventually there was a vote on whether to take up the task force bill.

The Senate votes by roll call. Each senator’s name is called, and called a second time if an aye or no isn’t forthcoming. The secretary goes through the list alphabetically, and those who didn’t vote before get called on again. During the roll call, at least half the Republicans walked off the floor, so their names were called twice to no response; then returned to the floor to give very slow responses when their names were called again.

In the middle of this count, Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, made a parliamentary motion for a “call of the Senate,” which means absent senators could be forced to return. Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who presides over the Senate, rejected the motion.

Sheldon insisted. Habib said he was out of order. Sheldon objected.

“The only person who has not voted is you, and therefore you’re out of order to bring the motion,” Habib said. He ordered the secretary to begin reading in the vaxx bill.

Republicans erupted, and proceedings stopped while other senators argued Habib had promised Sheldon he could bring his motion at the end of the roll call. But Sheldon was there, so he couldn’t make the motion, Habib repeated. By then, it was time for the hospital bill, so Habib had the secretary begin reading it into the record.

Republicans continued to argue and make motions. Finally, Habib, who is blind, got off the best line of the week, if not the entire session: “The only person who hadn’t voted was the very present – even I can see he’s present – Sen. Sheldon, who made the motion. That’s why his motion was out of order.”

The Senate took up the psychiatric hospital bill, which passed unanimously. But many Democratic senators and staff, and the vaxx bill sponsor, Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, believed it was dead because the Republicans’ slow-walk of the roll call and later objections had kept it from being properly introduced.

“We need to work harder next year,” Harris said in the hallway off the Senate floor, as Democrats huddled for more than an hour to discuss their next step. “These are tough bills.”

Then, with a nod to the upcoming Easter weekend, he added: “Maybe this will be resurrected.”

The Senate Democrats were working on a plan to do just that. But when they checked with Habib, they didn’t need a fancy maneuver. Habib said the vaxx bill made it before time lapsed on the deadline. He heard the secretary begin and end the formal introduction.

Senators and staff attorneys checked the tape from TVW and discovered Habib – whose ears may work better than anyone else in the Senate – was right. It was so clear Republicans didn’t object when the Senate resumed. After more than two hours of debate, the vaxx bill passed, albeit barely, and was sent back to the House.

Republicans would later complain that Democrats were unfair to reject all of their 18 amendments during the debate. But asked about their maneuvering to block the vaxx bill with their slow-walk strategy, Minority Leader Mark Schoesler was unapologetic.

“Things that we cared about weren’t being heard,” he said. “I don’t know of any minority that hasn’t used a number of tools at their disposal in the final hours.”

Maybe. But some longtime legislators and lobbyists said this tool was one they had never seen pulled out of box.

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