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Dems start the session sans 'silver bullet' assistance

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Two years ago, members of the state House spent the first week of the legislative session bogged down in a bitter fight over the rules guiding their actions for the subsequent 90 days. Democrats came away from the fracas with what became known as "silver bullets," six opportunities to drag dead bills from their committee crypts and give them new life on the House floor. Without those metaphorical rounds, the party's three key victories in 2015 would have been blanks.

But as the 2017 Montana Legislature convened Jan. 2, the magazine was already empty. The language creating the silver bullets was specific to the 2015 session, and an attempt by House Minority Leader Jenny Eck to manufacture additional ammunition was shot down by Republicans without discussion in early December.

"The way our Constitution is written, a minority should not be able to block the will of the majority," Eck says. "That's exactly what's happening right now. If a committee wants to hold a bill, then we can't get it out. That's a minority holding back the will of the majority."

The silver bullets were adopted in 2015 under pressure from moderate Republicans to bypass the 60-vote supermajority required to blast measures to the House floor. Those same Republicans used the provision to side with Democrats in passing the Disclose Act, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact and a Medicaid Expansion compromise.

Eck's proposal to the House Rules Committee last month was simple: Amend the blast motion rules to require a 51-vote simple majority. It's the same pitch that was delivered by Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, ahead of the 2015 session, and one that Eck believes would be more in line with the state Constitution. After all, she says, that's how blast motions are handled in the state Senate.

House Majority Leader Ron Ehli describes the silver bullets as an "oddball situation," and says Republicans in 2017 were eager to return to pre-2015 rules. "It's a time-saver for us on the House," he adds of the supermajority requirement, echoing the position of House Rules Committee Chair Jeff Essmann. Going into 2017, Ehli thinks his party is much more unified, an assertion bolstered by what he calls a "handshake agreement" with moderates allowing them to approach the leadership for help getting specific bills to the House floor. He believes the deal will avoid any "shenanigans" with bills getting buried in committee.

Eck acknowledges that the lack of silver bullets will result in an even tougher time this session for Democratic bills, including her proposal to create a paid leave insurance plan for Montana workers. But when it comes to the big-ticket item in 2017—an infrastructure bill—she's not sure Democrats will need anything extra in the chamber.

"I do feel optimistic about infrastructure," she says, "because I am hearing from the other side of the aisle that it's important to them as well."

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Empty chamber"

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