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House holds Senate bills as a 'price'

Last modified: 4/26/2012 12:00:00 AM
Hours after the Senate put the kibosh on several House bills yesterday dealing with abortion and refugees, the House responded by resituating both issues as amendments to distinctly unrelated legislation.

The 24-hour waiting period for abortions is now in a tax credit bill. Ditto for the refugee moratorium that Manchester officials want. And the House did the same with two right-to-work bills killed in the Senate, putting one of them in a snowplowing bill co-sponsored by the Senate president.

Then, for good measure, Rep. George Lambert, a Litchfield Republican, persuaded the House to table six other Senate bills until senators begin to take the House "seriously." One of the tabled bills holds up an accounting change prison officials need to deliver a $13 million savings to the state over the next two years.

After the House adjourned, House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt of Salem insisted the House was not retaliating against the Senate, which also recently irked the House by killing its online driver's education bill.

"I'm concerned about perception that this is retaliation," said Bettencourt. "Or that this is about bad relations between the House and Senate. That is not the case at all. It's merely about asserting the House's position and ensuring that we are following through on the issues that are important to the House."

But that's not the note Lambert struck in an interview yesterday afternoon. "For every bill (senators) want to hold up or not hear, there will be a price. We can do this every day until November."

With just over a month left before lawmakers recess for the year and focus on re-election, the relationship between House and Senate has become publicly prickly, and not just along party lines. Rep. Christopher Serlin, a Portsmouth Democrat, gave a running commentary via Twitter from the House floor yesterday. "NH GOP going to war with itself," he tweeted. "Love it."

Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, watched the House session from the gallery yesterday afternoon, and afterward joined Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, in a harsh rebuke.

"At a time when we should be focused on helping New Hampshire employers and supporting hardworking families, the House's actions today will ensure the defeat of critical legislative initiatives," the statement said. "We are appalled the House has chosen to play political games with legislation widely recognized as being important to the state's economy and job creation."

When the statement arrived, House Speaker Bill O'Brien and Bettencourt were telling reporters there was no strain in relations between the two chambers. The House, they said, was simply trying to get the Senate's attention. O'Brien added that he has a good friendship with Bragdon. The problem, Bettencourt and O'Brien said, is that the Senate has voted down or tabled too many House bills, many times without a proper hearing or discussion.

"Each (body) has to listen to the other," said O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican. "One can't say essentially 'We're not going to listen to you because we don't have enough time or we don't have enough interest to listen.' We look at their bills and give them all the consideration in the world and try to make them into good legislation if we can. We want to make sure there is that kind of reaction within the Senate (to our bills.)"

Two hours later, after seeing the statement from Bragdon and Bradley, Bettencourt sent a short response from his iPhone.

"When our friends in the Senate recover from being 'appalled' and take a deep breath," he wrote, "we can use the committee of conference process to compromise and ensure that the best policies are achieved for New Hampshire."

It was a chaotic end to a day that began so orderly.

The Senate had a heavy agenda yesterday: six abortion or contraception-related bills and a proposed one-year moratorium on refugees. But senators worked through all of them in less than two hours.

• With little discussion they voted 19-4 to send to study a bill that would have allowed employers with a religious objection to withhold insurance coverage for birth control.

• With no public discussion, they tabled a bill that would have prohibited the use of any public money for abortions. Health and Human Services officials had warned the bill would jeopardize all the Medicaid money the state receives.

• There was considerable - and at times emotional - debate on a bill that would have required women seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours after making an appointment for the procedure. That was killed in a 12-11 vote.

• In a 15-8 vote, the Senate put to study a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

• In an 18-5 vote that followed, senators passed a ban on "late-term" abortions, a procedure that is prohibited by federal law and is not offered in New Hampshire, according to people who testified at committee hearings.

• Senators also passed a bill creating a study committee for tracking abortions.

• And in a 19-4 vote, the Senate decided to study, not pass, an optional moratorium on new refugees. Sen. Jack Barnes, a Raymond Republican, urged the bill be put to study, saying Manchester city officials and refugee advocates have finally begun talking through the differences that prompted the bill.

Pro-choice and abortion-rights advocates issued statements praising the majority of votes and left the State House believing the abortion debate was over for the year. They returned when they learned House members, who were also in session yesterday, were reviving the 24-hour waiting period by amending a business bill.

The amended bills will head to the Senate. The two tax credit bills that now contain the 24-hour wait and the refugee moratorium are high-priority, bipartisan bills intended to move the "jobs and economy" agenda both chambers have touted.

Lambert said he alone came up with the idea to table the six Senate bills in the House's hands. He ran it by House leadership first, "sold it in the hallway" and introduced the motion yesterday afternoon. He acknowledged it was a bold move.

"I'm a poker player, and they say, 'Go big or go home,' " he said.

The tabled bills, which have already passed the Senate, will remain tabled until the House votes to "untable" them and send them on to the governor. They touch on a variety of issues - sewer commissioner costs, insurance fraud, defining what items boats can tow.

The most significant is a bill that allows the state Department of Corrections to transfer money between accounts. Prison spokesman Jeff Lyons said last night that without that authority, the department will not be able to deliver the state the $13 million savings over the next two years that the Legislature has requested.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, didn't disagree with the tabling maneuver, but he cautioned the House against tabling the prison bill. "We risk burning money the state cannot afford to burn," he said.

Rep. Brandon Giuda, a Chichester Republican, said that was all the more reason to table the bill. "If this provides some extra special pressure on the Senate to move fast," vote for it, he told House members.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)


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