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Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, makes a point concerning the Senate's operating rules Thursday during a news conference in Montgomery.
AP photo by Rob Carr
Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, makes a point concerning the Senate's operating rules Thursday during a news conference in Montgomery.

Alabama Senate comes to a halt over rules battle

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Republican senators and a few of their Democratic allies brought the Alabama Senate to a halt Thursday and threatened to keep it at a standstill until the Democratic leadership agrees to rewrite the Senate's operating rules to give the minority a stronger role.

The senators staging the shutdown even blocked their own bills from coming up for debate.

"You are going to see a slowdown until the majority sees fit to sit around a table with us and talk about rules," Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, called the minority "Alabama's version of Newt Gingrich shutting down government."

But he also noted that nearly every four-year term of the Senate begins with slowdown tactics by senators who lost the organizational fight that starts each term. After a few weeks, the Senate always settles down and starts passing bills, Barron said.

This term of the Senate began with 18 Democrats organizing the Senate by electing Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, as president pro tem. Twelve Republicans and five Democrats opposed Mitchem's election, and they now make up the Senate's minority coalition.

They object to several new Senate operating rules, including one that lets 18 senators rather than 21 cut off debate on the state budgets and on bills redrawing the districts for the Legislature and Alabama's congressional delegation.

Once 18 senators are ready to cut off debate, the talk must end in 30 minutes.

"What is fair about 30 minutes of debate on a $7 billion education budget?" Waggoner asked.

Another rule change eliminates an old Senate rule that allowed six senators to sign a statement forcing a roll call vote on every issue that comes up.

Barron said the majority changed the rules because Republicans had used them in the past to slow down work needlessly by forcing roll call votes on routine congratulatory resolutions, such as honoring a couple on their 50th wedding anniversary.

On days when the Senate is operating normally, such resolutions pass in rapid-fire voice votes. Roll call votes take several minutes each.

Until Thursday, the minority had used slowdown tactics on a selective basis. But on Thursday, the minority blocked all action by refusing to vote for resolutions that must be passed to bring up each bill for debate. At least three-fifths of the 35-member Senate must vote for debate to begin, but 16 to 17 senators consistently voted against bringing up each bill.

With the Legislature about to complete the first one-third of its session, House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said he is worried the Senate slowdown will delay consideration of state budgets and block consideration of other important legislation.

"What we do in the House means nothing if the Senate does not act. They are getting behind," Hammett said.

Mitchem, the Senate's president pro tem, said he has been talking with senators on both sides and reviewing proposed rules changes presented to him by the minority.

"As a mediator, I'm doing everything I can to see if we can get the Senate back voting on issues rather than personalities," Mitchem said.

Until there is an agreement, there won't be much action in the Senate, said Sen. Tom Butler, one of the Democrats siding with Republicans.

"The ship of state in the state Senate cannot float with half of the boat not working," Butler, D-Madison, said.

Butler said he and Mitchem had breakfast earlier this week and talked informally about what the minority wants to change.

Mitchem wants to help find a solution, Butler said.

"The president pro tem said he is interested in talking to us," said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

Staff Writer M.J. Ellington contributed to this story.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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