On Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, generated a lot of blow-back when he cut off discussion of a controversial bill freezing utilities’ use of renewable energy, and then declared it had passed on a voice vote even though it sounded like it had failed loudly.
Limiting discussion in committees happens all the time, but refusing to allow a show of hands that the Democrats on the committee had requested is unusual. The whole thing seemed rushed, and two Republican legislators afterward expressed their displeasure with Rucho’s tactics.
The next day Democrats were still insisting that it was against the rules for a committee chair to deny a request for what is known as "division." Republicans said they were in the clear.
One thing is certain: It’s ambiguous because the rules don’t directly address the question.
The rule on division specifically refers to votes taken on the Senate floor when the electronic voting system isn’t being used for some reason, perhaps due to malfunction. Democrats argue that the rules that apply to the Senate also apply to its committees, and the first rule in the book makes a general statement to that effect. But that’s a big leap, the GOP says.
Even though the rulebook is silent on division in committees, by custom committee chairs are given discretion to conduct their meetings how they see fit, including limiting speakers’ time and voting. The thinking is that a full airing without restrictions is available once a bill reaches the full Senate.
In an interview with Dome on Friday, Rucho said bills that are contentious or expected to be close votes are discussed ahead of time by Senate leaders. That way the chairs know what is coming and make sure they know how their members will vote.
Republicans have the majority of members in both chambers, and so they get to control the appointments to committees and, ultimately, decide what legislation makes it to the full Senate or dies. Rucho said the GOP-controlled Senate has never cut off debate on the floor.
"A couple members got rowdy," Rucho said of the committee meeting. "But there was no doubt in my mind what the vote would be."
There are pitfalls for taking a head count on committee votes, because a chair might not have all the votes he or she thinks. But declaring an outcome regardless of the vote is risky. And in this case, the senator’s famously brusque manner might have escalated tensions.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Raleigh who is on the Finance Committee, says he still thinks the rules are clear. He told Dome on Thursday he doesn’t mind losing, but if he wins and still loses, that’s not fair.