Democrats bring House to halt over health care stalemate

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's smooth-running legislative session hit a rough patch Tuesday as House Democrats demanded that every bill be read in full to protest the stalemate on health care reform.

The maneuver angered Republicans, threatened to endanger Democratic bills and slowed progress on a session that had been barreling ahead of schedule.

"It's unfortunate that we have had to take such unusual action today, but my Democratic colleagues and I believe that a drastic situation requires drastic tactics,'' House Democratic leader Perry Thurston of Plantation said in a statement.

Democrats invoked the rarely used rule to call attention to the House's resistance to accept any federal money for health insurance expansion and to demand that the House allow another vote on a Senate bill that uses $51 billion in federal money over 10 years to provide health care coverage to poor Floridians.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, responded by plugging in a computerized auto reader to recite the bills in full, but he would not commit to taking up the Senate plan. The House had previously rejected the Senate bill on a mostly party line vote, but Democrats believe Republicans were pressured into voting against the measure.

"Our thought is we spent five hours on it, not really sure we need to do it again," Weatherford said at the end of the day. "But we understand that the job of the minority is to ask questions . . . and we know that this issue is important to them. We have a difference of opinion.''

Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 38-1 to adopt its health care proposal. The plan, which has been endorsed by Gov. Rick Scott, hospitals and business groups, would cover an estimated 1 million uninsured.

House Republicans continue to support a scaled-back approach that rejects federal dollars and uses up to $300 million in state funding to provide basic coverages to 130,000 Floridians.

Both plans are essentially now tied to the same bill, HB 7169.

The architect of the House proposal, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, said he doesn't see the logic of bringing up the Senate plan again.

"We had almost an entire day of debate on the issue and we had a vote," he said. "Nobody understands what they're asking for. They want a do-over?"

Rather than require staff to read each of the bills in person, the House used a computerized auto-reader named "Mary," whose soporific voice was put on fast-forward. House staff quickly made sure the device had its own Twitter handle: @HouseAutoReader. Within an hour, it had 240 followers.

Weatherford also responded by postponing discussion on several bills supported by Democrats. He plowed ahead with two other bills that were priorities of Republicans, including a 15-page medical malpractice bill that would limit the liability of doctors and hospitals. That bill is a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The Democrats' move came on a rough day for Weatherford and House leaders. In addition to rejecting the House's health care plan, the Senate rejected two other House priorities: a bill to close the traditional pension system to new employees and a bill to give parents the ability to take over failing schools, called "parent trigger."

Until then, legislators had succeeded in pushing through top priorities on ethics, campaign finance and school graduation. They even reached an early agreement on the state's $74.5 billion budget, which opened the door to lawmakers ending the 60-day session earlier than scheduled on Friday.

"All tactics are fair in love, war and politics," Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said after the House standoff began. "You do it at your own risk, obviously."

The orchestrated gridlock was foreshadowed early Tuesday when Thurston and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, met with Scott at the Governor's Mansion, urging him to veto the budget and demand that lawmakers come back to resolve the health insurance stalemate in a special session. They told the governor they would use their parliamentary tools to call attention to their frustration.

Scott repeated his support for the Senate plan Tuesday but also refused to indicate whether he would use a veto threat or call lawmakers back in special session.

"I've said yes we should do this," he told reporters. "The Senate has said we should do this. The House has said no. I've let everybody know from two months ago where I stand on this."

Supporters of using federal funds for health insurance expansion, however, have made it known they want the governor to increase the heat on House Republicans.

The governor should be "calling them back every week until they come up with a plan,'' said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the lone House Republican to vote with Democrats in favor of the Senate plan. "But he's nowhere to be found."

Scott's potential opponent in 2014, former Gov. Charlie Crist, made a similar plea on his Facebook page Tuesday.

"It is really disappointing to watch the Legislature, particularly the Florida House of Representatives, put ideology over the health care needs of working uninsured Floridians," Crist wrote.

"I know one thing, if this debate had happened during my term as governor, the Legislature and I would have spent all summer in Tallahassee until we had done the right thing by the people that we all serve."

Democrats said they will continue to demand that every bill be read in its entirely for the remaining three days of the legislative session — unless it is a bill that has already passed the House and is returning from the Senate. They acknowledged that many Democrat bills are now in jeopardy.

"I'd say they're dead,'' said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, a deputy Democratic leader. "We recognized when the decision was made there would be consequences."

Times/Herald staff writers Katie Sanders and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Democrats bring House to halt over health care stalemate 04/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 10:31am]

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