Senate Republicans appeared to be barreling toward a vote to approve a $30.8 billion budget Thursday night — until Senate Democrats caucused.
The result: no budget vote in the Senate on Thursday.
Democrats simply weren’t in the mood to be rushed on the matter, as could be heard in the hallway outside the third-floor conference room at Legislative Plaza where they were meeting.
At one point, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, said the Republicans couldn’t pass the budget without the Democrats present on the Senate floor.
“They can’t convene the session without us,” Haynes was heard telling his colleagues. “They can’t get a quorum.”
There was audible disagreement between Haynes and Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, on such a suggestion. But Haynes was forceful.
“We’ve got to be unanimous,” Haynes said. “You’ve got to use the ammunition you’ve got. If you don’t do that, then you give up.”
Again Henry disagreed.
The Finance Ways and Means Committee passed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal with Democratic support Thursday afternoon. The Republican plan appeared to be to move back to business on the Senate floor, where the Senate could hand the House an approved budget bill overnight. Both Democrats and Republicans announced they would caucus before heading to the Senate floor.
But while the notion of refusing Republicans a quorum was quashed in the Democratic caucus, there was broad agreement among the Democrats that they did not want to act so swiftly after the committee vote.
There was talk that the right approach was simply to tell the Republican leadership that the Democrats wanted more time to digest the budget proposal. Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, the Democratic caucus chairman, had that conversation with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, according to a Democratic aide.
The biggest hangup appears to be the Democrats’ desire for an extension of unemployment benefits, an item that accounts for about $3.1 million for state and local government, a small figure considering the size of the bill. From most accounts, Haslam is agreeable to the extension if the Legislature wants to cover it.
But the item is not in the Senate plan, and Senate Republicans do not appear to be willing to go along with the extension. Approximately 28,000 Tennesseans would be eligible for the extensions of 20 weeks of benefits if it were approved.
The purpose of the caucus meeting was to have Bill Bradley, budget director from the Department of Finance and Administration, brief members who are not on the finance committee about Haslam’s amended budget proposal. Mark Cate, special assistant to Haslam, was in the meeting to represent the governor.
Bradley gave the caucus members much of the same outline he had given committee members earlier in the day. The finance committee proceedings were marked by numerous stops and starts on the budget, while the committee considered other items on the calendar along the way.
After Bradley and Cate left the caucus conference room, a question could be heard in the Democrats’ discussion: “Why are we rushing?”
“This is a $30 billion bill,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, making the point that the bill didn’t need such a quick vote.
At one point, Berke cautioned his colleagues that a member of the media was outside the door. That didn’t stop the discussion.
There were comings and goings. Bradley returned at one point for further conversation with the members. Haynes left the room momentarily for a cell-phone conversation. Finney left the room at one point and upon return mentioned to the reporter that the proceedings had him hungry for jelly beans, showing two handfuls. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, sat and chatted with the reporter. The door to the conference room was open during the whole meeting.
The chain of events underscored what has become a common circumstance in the Legislature and its overwhelmingly Republican majority after last fall’s elections. Republicans hold a 20-13 majority in the Senate and a 64-34-1 majority in the House.
Democrats’ frustration with their distinct minority status has been noticeable in many ways, including Haynes’ passion about using whatever ammunition the Democrats can claim.
The long day of discussion had all the appearances that the Senate was headed toward a budget vote Thursday night. As Democrats finally made their way to the Senate floor, where Republicans were already gathered, Ramsey made the announcement that there would be no budget vote Thursday.