As Indiana house Democrats begin their fourth week of voluntary exile in Illinois, house Republicans are struggling to figure out how to end the standoff without abandoning their ambitious legislative agenda.
“We have very limited options as to what actions we can take to force those who have undertaken the oath of office to perform their constitutional duty,” says Republican house speaker Brian Bosma. “Our constitution and rules only provide for the ability to levy fines, which we have done, and to censure members.”
“We’re in uncharted territory here in Indiana,” says Mike O’Brien, chairman of the Hendricks County Republican party and a former legislative director for Republican governor Mitch Daniels. “There have been walkouts before. Republicans and Democrats have walked out of the house. A walkout in the past in Indiana meant one party or the other went upstairs to a conference room, and maybe talked for 24 hours and came back down and got back to work.”
The house Democrats are objecting to several measures proposed by Republicans, including labor policies and education-reform policies such as vouchers and charter-school expansion. Originally, they left because Republicans wanted to a pass a right-to-work law. Although Republicans announced soon after the Democrats left that they would no longer pursue that piece of legislation, the Democrats have not yet returned. Until they do, Republicans are unable to pass any legislation: Indiana law requires that there be a quorum (67 members) present for any bills to be passed.
The Indiana legislative session is scheduled to end April 29, but the Democrats’ actions, even if they return in time to let the state legislature pass a budget, could still force unnecessary costs on the state by requiring that a special session be convened after the regular session. Another threat is a government shutdown, which will occur if a budget is not passed by June 30.
Bosma is now considering inserting certain items of legislation into bills that have already passed the house and are now before the state senate. After the Democrats return, those bills could pass the house on an up-and-down vote, eliminating chances to offer amendments. Ultimately, because of the quorum requirements, the Republicans don’t have much leverage in this situation.
“We can’t do the Madison shuffle that Wisconsin legislators were able to accomplish,” Bosma notes, referring to how Badger State Republicans were able to pass a collective-bargaining-limits measure while Democrats were still out of the state, thanks to the fact that non-fiscal legislation in Wisconsin requires fewer members present.
Bosma says the Republicans have offered some compromises, but Democrats haven’t shown any interest yet. “They seem to be something of a moving target,” Bosma remarks. “Every time I develop some optimism that we’ve reached a near conclusion, the goalposts move significantly. My phone is on, and I’ve had a number of discussions with the Democratic leader.”
“We’ve offered a number of concessions on substitutive matters on issues of concern to the Democrats. What we have not agreed to do is to meet their demand to remove issues” — including collective-bargaining and education reforms, he says — “for the remainder of the legislative session in both chambers, which is their continued demand, that these issues just go away, really nullifying the election results of November 2.”
So far, there hasn’t been the same intensity of opposition to the GOP majority’s agenda in Indiana as there has been in Wisconsin. A union protest last week that labor leaders expected to draw 25,000 protesters ultimately drew only 8,000 — and many of them were from out of state. O’Brien also observes that public opinion doesn’t seem to be swinging toward the Democrats.
“Democrats just haven’t done a very good job communicating why it is they’ve left the state,” he observes. “From a political-management standpoint, it’s been a really poor effort. I think there’s still a lot of confusion as to why exactly they’re gone. They’re protesting something, but nobody really knows exactly what it is.”
Another factor in the standoff could be Governor Daniels’s possible 2012 presidential run. “[House minority leader and Democrat] Pat Bauer is said to be obsessed with the governor and the possibility that he might run for president, so that could certainly be guiding the Democrats’ strategic decision-making at this point,” O’Brien says.
Bosma is also concerned that the Democrats’ Illinois exile could lead to politically toxic relationships between Democratic legislators and special interests.
“One of our concerns here now is they’re not paying their own expenses out of state,” he says. “Those are being paid, allegedly, by the state Democratic party. But the state Democratic party is soliciting contributions to support these expenses, and our fear is that the very special interests that the Democratic legislators are seeking to gain political leverage with on these issues are the ones that are financing the walkout.”
“That takes political influence here in Indiana to an entirely new level, when private entities with vested interests are financing legislators that are not performing their duties,” Bosma adds.
O’Brien sees some hopeful signs that the Democrats could return in the near future.
“Right now, Democrats are trying to figure out a way to come home in a way that isn’t a total loss and allows them to save face. Politically, it’s starting to break badly for them. Major newspapers are coming out against them,” he says, also noting that Democrats’ absence from their districts has meant they haven’t had a chance to explain directly to their constituents why they’re acting this way.
“I’d look for this to end sooner rather than later,” says O’Brien, “but again, here we are four weeks later and I don’t think anyone thought a month ago we’d still be waiting for them to come home.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO staff reporter.