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GOP leaders consider ways to move on without Dems

March 8, 2011

Indiana's Republican leaders are considering ways to continue Statehouse business without the presence of minority House Democrats, who remain in Illinois protesting GOP-backed bills they oppose.

Little changed Tuesday in the partisan standoff, which has stalled House business for more than 15 days. Frustrated Republicans say they won't be bullied into changing their agenda, and Democrats showed no signs of backing down — with one lawmaker vowing to stay in Urbana, Ill., "until hell freezes over" if that's what it takes to get Republicans to give in to the minority party's demands.

The boycott denies the House the quorum it needs to conduct official business, but Republican lawmakers are looking into ways to press on.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he may start holding budget hearings next week even though the budget bill is caught up in the impasse. Kenley said he'd use the version of the budget that passed out of a House committee as a base to work from — meaning senators wouldn't be considering any of the 149 amendments that might pass should the House if Democrats return. The situation isn't ideal, but it may have to suffice, Kenley said.

"We've got a lot of people that need to come and talk, plus the public needs to have a chance to testify," Kenley said. "We may have to get started."

House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, said he'd prefer for House members to have a bigger voice in the creation of the budget, but understands why the Senate wants to get started.

"If the Democrats are going to be absent without leave here, then eventually the Senate has to go ahead and display some level of maturity," Espich said.

Kenley said he'll make a decision at the end of this week on possible hearings.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said it's appropriate for senators to do as much work as they can while House Democrats are away.

"Things could move on a sort of two-track basis," Daniels said. "Those who are here prepared to work could meet and advance things. At some point if the Democrats decide to respect the voters and the process, they can come join."

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said no decision has been made yet on whether his chamber will start working without Democrats. He noted that rules prohibit most official business — such as committee votes on Senate bills — but said House Republicans could informally work on legislation.

"We have discussed wiring around all of this if it continues for too terribly much longer," Bosma said.

House Democrats didn't seem fazed by the prospect of work continuing without them.

"They can't have anything official, so it doesn't really matter," said Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka.

Some Democrats have said this week they'll stay out as long as necessary to get Republicans to make changes to bills they oppose. Fry pointed to an education bill he's against, saying it was unacceptable and he was willing to do whatever it takes to derail it.

"If I have to be in Urbana, Ill., until hell freezes over, that's what it's going to be," Fry said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said his caucus is focusing on three main bills they oppose and want Republicans to "negotiate," though Republicans have repeatedly said they won't take items off the agenda or cut a backroom deal to bring back Democrats.

Daniels told reporters that it would be a shame if Democrats deny the House the quorum it needs to do business past the scheduled end of the session on April 29. If Democrats stay out past June 30 when the current budget expires, the boycott could force most of state government to shut down.

"I don't know why we hold elections if people aren't going to respect the outcome," Daniels said. "I don't know why people run for office if they're going to pocket the money and walk off the job. I think everybody involved — starting with the people of Indiana — have shown a lot of patience. Our patience, I suppose, has a limit."

Daniels says he'll call special legislative sessions all year if needed to get votes on key proposals.

"If these folks believe we'll be sort of bullied into submission, I would just recommend they not book any summer travel plans and they just be prepared to come back to work someday," Daniels said Tuesday.

Fry noted that special sessions are typically limited to a few core issues — which could help Democrats since they oppose several bills they consider an attack on labor unions and public education. When asked whether he thought a special session this year would be limited, he replied: "For us to participate, it would have to be."

Bosma said there was "no chance" of a special session on only issues Democrats approve.

"That's almost an outrageous statement," Bosma said. "They need to get back here and do the work they were elected to do."

The House will again try to convene Wednesday.

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