TALLAHASSEE — Bitter partisanship brought the Florida House to a mind-numbing crawl on Friday.
Outraged when Republicans stifled debate on an education bill, Democrats retaliated the only way they could. They dusted off an obscure clause in the state Constitution and demanded that every bill be read aloud word for word, every last "whereas" and "notwithstanding" for 16 hours, until 2:17 a.m. Saturday when bleary-eyed lawmakers finally headed home.
The meltdown ruined plans by Jewish lawmakers to go home for Passover, jeopardized a smooth end to an election-year session and threatened to tarnish the image of House Speaker Marco Rubio, who took control in 2006 promising to make the House "a marketplace of ideas."
The furor ignited when Republicans cut off debate on a bill dealing with the FCAT, the standardized test many Republicans support and Democrats deplore. Democrats wanted to debate a Republican-sponsored Senate bill to lessen reliance on FCAT scores in high schools, but Republicans shut off discussion.
"I don't know why we have to resort to unbecoming procedural rules to stop a full and fair debate," protested Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the minority leader. "If this is what this House has come to, it's something you should all be ashamed of."
Then Gelber invoked the rarely used provision, adopted as part of the modern Constitution in 1968, that allows a third of either house to demand that a bill be read in full.
Gelber dashed off an e-mail to Democrats, urging them to stand strong, saying Republicans "are not simply disrespecting you, they are disrespecting your constituents."
Friday's chaos unfolded a week after a statewide poll by Quinnipiac University found that 32 percent of voters approve of the Legislature's performance.
At 11:25 a.m., a visibly angry Rubio ordered sergeants to round up all absent lawmakers and told them to remain seated while he cut off Internet access to their desktop computers and BlackBerry devices.
"The sergeant will secure the chamber. I also order the sergeant to find each member of the House and bring them into the chamber," Rubio said. "I think we'll make plans to be here quite awhile."
For the next 12 hours, part-time reading clerks, including Jeremy Simon of Clearwater, a 21-year-old senior at Florida State University, droned on for hours, reading every bill line by line. The first bill read was an 86-page condo association measure that took two hours.
Republicans responded by removing all Democrat-sponsored bills from next week's calendar, even a redesign of a specialty license plate at historically black Bethune-Cookman University.
The clash brought to an abrupt end the bipartisan harmony Gov. Charlie Crist has sought to maintain since he was elected governor in 2006. Crist was on state business in Miami and his office had no comment on the showdown in the House that could imperil his agenda.
Democrats hold only 43 of the 120 House seats, despite a net gain of eight seats since 2006, so the Republicans' control of the agenda is usually not in doubt.
Democrats say their only chance to make an impact is to offer amendments to Republican bills. So when Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, cut off debate, Democrats saw it as heavy-handed.
Republicans repeatedly came up just short in trying to muster the two-thirds vote to defeat the reading requirement.
"This is not what I got elected for, to participate in this type of rule playing," said newly-elected Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who was sworn in Wednesday. "I wanted to go up there and take the microphone and say, 'Why can't we all get along?' "
At one point, the number of Democratic votes fell by a few, suggesting the standoff was winding down. "They're slipping," Rubio joked. But the impasse only grew worse.
Bogdanoff and Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the majority leader, circulated a letter to lawmakers accusing Democrats of starting the fight by insisting the school bill be debated Friday, when Republicans wanted to discuss it next week. "Unfortunately, some have chosen to put their personal political goals ahead of the House," they wrote.
As payback for the forced reading of bills, Republicans deliberately skipped over Democrat-sponsored bills on the calendar so they couldn't pass. Three had already passed the Senate, dealing with nursing, HIV education and the Bethune-Cookman University license plate important to the legislative black caucus.
"House Republicans take legislation hostage," Democrats charged in response.
Then, Republicans called an emergency afternoon meeting of the Rules Committee, so they could rearrange the calendar and prevent votes on all Democrat-sponsored bills next Tuesday. "Childish," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale, a member of the panel.
Bogdanoff said the amendments Democrats wanted to debate were going to be heard next week. "I guess they were stomping their feet and pounding their fists and saying we want to hear them today."
By nightfall, as debate slogged on, weary humor settled over the chamber.
"This place is starting to feel like the Superdome," after Hurricane Katrina, Rubio said. "They are running out of water. They are running out of food. The restrooms are backed up."
The last time lawmakers ordered bills to be read aloud was in 2006 when Senate Democratic leader Les Miller of Tampa briefly employed the tactic to punish Republicans for reviving a school voucher bill. In 2001, House Democrats, upset with Republican sponsored tax cuts, forced the GOP to read a 70-page elections bill.
The 16-hour session finally ended at 2:17 a.m. after one final contentious debate on a bill that would offer health coverage to Florida's 3.8-million uninsured. The bill passed 70-39, and differs from a plan sought by the Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.