Indiana House Democrats returned to their long-empty seats late Monday, claiming victory and pledging cooperation to meet a looming deadline for the budget bill and a multitude of other matters.
But it may take awhile for the ill-will created by their five-week boycott – one of the longest legislative walkouts in U.S. history – to be forgotten or forgiven.
While legislators on both sides of the aisle promised to get on with business, some candidly admit it will be challenge.
“It's going to be difficult,” said Rep. Heath VanNatter of Kokomo, one of the 19 freshman legislators – all Republicans – who started the session by swearing off what they called “old school” partisan politics.
About six weeks into his first session, VanNatter witnessed a bitterly partisan dispute that virtually shut down legislative business when 39 of the 40 House Democrats fled the state on Feb. 22 in a quorum-busting move to stall a series of GOP-backed labor and education bills.
“Before they left, I felt like I was just starting to build relationships with some of them,'' VanNatter said. “But this has changed my mind about who they are.”
Rep. Terri Austin, one of the House Democrats who returned to the floor of the House late Monday, said House members have too much to do before the session ends on April 29 to let bad feelings fester.
She likened the legislative process to marriage. “At times you disagree, sometimes at the top of your lungs, and sometimes somebody ends up sleeping on the couch,” she said. “But eventually you come back together.”
But there was some disagreement Monday on just why the House members came back together. The Democrats' demands for their return have waxed and waned over the past five weeks.
In a statement released to the media, House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said Democrats came back because Republicans had softened their “radical agenda” and agreed to change or kill some of the bills that sent House Democrats walking. “The timeout forced by Democrats gave Hoosiers an opportunity to examine the radical agenda being attempted in Indiana and to speak out,” Bauer said in the statement.
But Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said Democrats came back of “public pressure.” He said Republicans agreed to only a handful of significant changes to legislation as part of their negotiations with Democrats over the last few weeks. That included capping the number of low-income students who could receive private school vouchers and limiting the impact of legislation aimed at expanding the number of non-union companies that would bid on public construction projects.
The statement released Monday by Bauer said House Democrats won more sweeping concessions, including the death of a Senate bill aimed at limiting public-employee bargaining and killing legislation that would have allowed private companies to take over troubled schools.
Both sides agree that one bill that did die as the result of the boycott was the so-called “right to work” bill that would have barred labor agreements that make union membership and fees a condition of employment. That bill was pulled within 48 hours after the walkout started, and sent to a legislative study commission to take up this summer.
Rep. Mike Kirchhoff, a Republican from Kokomo, said he wasn't surprised to hear two different versions of what happened to end the stalemate. “I said a week ago that House Democrats would come back someday and claim a great victory,” Kirchhoff said.
Like many of his freshmen colleagues left behind in the Statehouse while House Democrats were holed up in a hotel in Urbana, Ill., Kirchhoff has expressed frustration that debate on the contentious labor and education bills that triggered the walkout went unheard on the House floor. “I'm just glad we're getting back to work,” Kirchhoff said. “I'm looking forward to getting started again.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Randy Frye of Greensburg, a fellow Republican freshman, who said it was unclear to him why House Democrats returned when they did. “I think we're relieved and just glad to be getting back to doing the people's business,” Frye said. “We came here to do a job.”
The House resumed business on Monday evening, with plans to work late into the night. Earlier in the day, Bosma told lawmakers to cancel any dinner plans they may have had and he offered to have dinner brought in so they could work until midnight if needed.
Austin said she and her Democrat colleagues are ready to put the boycott behind them and forge ahead. She said legislators on both sides of the aisle need to “refocus our priorities and talk about creating jobs. That should be our marching orders for this session.”
That may be easier said than done, said Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican from New Albany. “I'm glad they're back,” Clere said. “But the walkout was very disruptive to the process and it's going to be difficult to pick up the pieces...It's naïve suggest that we can just pick up where we left off.”