• Democrats in charge
    January 12,2013

    The Vermont Senate has a lopsided Democratic majority, but its political complexion remains a complicated mix.

    Last year there were many complaints about the leadership of Sen. John Campbell, president pro tempore and Democratic leader, who had a tough time maintaining decorum among restive Democrats. Several newcomers to the Senate — Sen. Peter Galbraith was most frequently mentioned — failed to exhibit the expected degree of deference to the old guard, some of whom controlled influential committees.

    One result was talk of an insurgency among Democratic senators. The idea was that unhappy liberals would pick someone to replace Campbell as president pro tempore. But the senator who eventually mounted a challenge, Ann Cummings of Washington County, failed, and in the end, the young Turks proved reluctant to challenge the old guard.

    As a result, moderate voices continue to play a prominent role in the Senate. For example, the Committee on Committees, which makes committee appointments and names chairmen, has three members — Campbell, plus Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, and an appointed member, Sen. Richard Mazza, a Democrat from Grand Isle.

    In the Senate Mazza is seen as Mr. Insider. He has been a confidant of Scott and occupies a place as a sensible moderate, respected on both sides of the aisle and not likely to get carried away by the enthusiasms of the moment. His presence on the committee gives it a distinctly moderate cast.

    Thus, two of the seven Republican senators earned committee leadership posts this week. They are Sen. Peg Flory of Rutland County, who has been appointed chairwoman of the Institutions Committee, and Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland County, appointed chairman of Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. These appointments reflect the wide respect that both senators have earned among Republicans and Democrats.

    Meanwhile, Campbell has been wrestling with a problem arising from the committee structure of the Legislature. Bills originate in committees, and if the committee does not back a bill, it seldom makes it to the Senate floor for a vote. This creates a problem when a majority of senators favors a bill that a majority on a given committee rejects.

    Last year, Sen. Dick Sears, the longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee, bottled up two bills that many senators wanted a chance to vote for on the Senate floor. These were “death with dignity” — or physician-assisted suicide — and marijuana decriminalization. Sears is liberal on many issues involving crime and punishment and civil rights, but on these bills he had reservations.

    Campbell has said he wants to devise some method of bringing to the floor bills rejected in committee. This is a dubious undertaking because the committee system ordinarily ensures that bills get close scrutiny from members with the expertise and the time to look at them in detail. Members on the floor rely on the committees to do the hard work of refining bills, and they often take the committee’s support of a bill as an important endorsement. To do an end run around the committees could damage the process.

    Sometimes it happens that a committee may oppose a bill but recognizes that there is wide support on the floor. Thus, in some instances, a committee may report a bill adversely, meaning it is sending the bill to the floor for a vote but that the committee itself doesn’t like it.

    Campbell and Sears may be planning that sort of procedure to keep the restive young Turks happy. Of course, any bill coming from the Senate must also win approval in the House, where Speaker Shap Smith sometimes faces pressures similar to those making Campbell’s life difficult.

    In any event, the large Democratic majorities in both houses are no guarantee that the majorities will march in lockstep toward a preordained agenda. It has become apparent that Republicans who win the respect of majority Democrats are able to exert important influence and that consensus among Democrats is always a work in progress.

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