In an apparent effort to thwart an overhaul of the state’s federally funded health-care-for-the-poor program, House Democrats attempted to make an early dash for the exits at the Tennessee statehouse Thursday.
The Democrats’ seeming goal was to deprive the Republican-run chamber of a quorum necessary to conduct official legislative business as the 2019 session’s last day drew to a close. Their aim was to prevent the General Assembly from approving a late-hour measure seeking greater state autonomy from the federal government for managing Tennessee’s Medicaid program, TennCare.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart said members of his party — who’re outnumbered by GOP lawmakers 73-26 in the House and 28-5 in the Senate — were angry about not receiving a key appointment to a legislative conference committee working on the issue. Conference committees are typically assigned by the House and Senate speakers to smooth over discrepancies between companion bills already passed by both chambers.
“What a bad precedent to exclude any member of the minority party from such an important and weighty matter,” Stewart said.
Despite Democrats’ efforts, the TennCare “block grant” measure ultimately garnered General Assembly approval. It authorizes Gov. Bill Lee to negotiate with the Trump administration to acquire TennCare operating funds in a lump sum.
Most Democrats sought to leave the chamber in protest, but the speaker briefly ordered the doors locked. A physical scuffle ensued as Democrats made their way out. Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) said he was grabbed around the neck but did not know who did it, but Rules Chair Matthew Hill said he would launch an investigation into Hardaway for assaulting a sergeant at arms, citing television news footage of the incident.
Much of the Democratic caucus huddled outside of the chamber, where Caucus Chair Mike Stewart called the speaker’s order “outrageous.” Republicans could normally form the required quorum without any Democrats, but some from the majority party had already left for the week, so Republicans were unable to conduct business without the minority party.
(Republican Speaker Glen) Casada cited House Rule 20, which allows the speaker to order the sergeant at arms to retrieve House members. Eventually, Democrats returned to the chamber and made a quorum. Both chambers approved the compromise deal, despite what House Minority Leader Karen Camper called the “dangerous precedent” of excluding the minority party from the House conference delegation.
The discord continued later in the evening as state troopers removed a protestor in the gallery who was calling for Casada to resign.
Stewart, who represents a Nashville district, claimed that forcing legislators to perform their functions typified a “lawlessness” and “culture of arrogance” that’s been on display since Casada took over as House speaker this year.
Casada accused Democrats of conspiring to shirk their duties as public officeholders. “It was a serious offense, what they did,” Casada said in a press conference later. “It hasn’t been done in many, many years — probably back since the Civil War.”
“This is a sacred duty and obligation,” he continued. “They chose to turn their backs on the responsibility that has been given to them.”