Not to abuse the much overused bang/whimper dichotomy entered into the language by the late poet T.S. Eliot, but if any recent event ever earned the metaphor, based on something starting strong and ending weak, this now doomed and about-to-be-adjourned special session of the Tennessee General Assembly certainly did.
With a 7-4 vote of the state Senate Health and Welfare Committee against Governor Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” proposal Wednesday afternoon, the session, which began with optimism and fanfare Monday night and was intended to last at least a week, pooped out utterly.
Both Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), the GOP House majority leader, and Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), the Democratic leader in that chamber, had said all week that there were enough votes in the House to pass the joint resolution, but the chance of it getting to the floor were put to rest for good by the vote of the Senate committee, which was being regarded in advance as a bellwether for other committees -- and for the prospects of the special session itself.
Upon hearing of it, Haslam asked McCormick to withdrew the bill, or take it “off notice,” in legislative jargon.
Actually, things might have turned out otherwise. The way in which the two days of testimony and Q-and-A on the Senate committee went had revealed a 5-5 split, with one undecided senator, Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) being relentlessly hot-boxed by both contending sides.
Once Bowling, whose name was early in the roll call, cast her no vote Wednesday afternoon, committee chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), who had been aligned with those who favored Haslam's measure, followed suit and voted no, as well.
In the first of several formal interviews held by various principals with the assembled media, Fitzhugh was reminded of the frequent assertions made by various witnesses in committees during the week — to the effect that hospitals could close in Tennessee with the failure of the Haslam bill, which would bring a minimum of $1.4 billion annually in funding under the Affordable Care Act.
Fitzhugh was asked: Would Republicans be responsible if this should occur? “Yes!” he said emphatically, in one of the shortest and most meaningful statements made by anyone over the two days of meetings and testimonies. Senate Democratic Leader Lee Harris of Memphis said substantially the same in his own availability shortly afterward.
Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who had kept a cautious silence from the time Governor Haslam announced “Insure Tennessee” at year’s end and had not formally adopted a position, finally spoke to the issue. The bill could never have passed in the Senate floor, he said, and he doubted that it could have, or should have, in the House, McCormick and Fitzhugh notwithstanding.
For her part, House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) had also held back from taking a position on the bill, having said at one point only that she was willing to try to formulate an alternative to “Insure Tennessee” if it was rejected. She said that Tuesday, and most observers took that statement — and her failure to endorse Haslam’s bill — as a prophecy of its failure.
When he met with the media later Wednesday afternoon, after both chambers had adjourned sine die until the start of regular session business next week, Governor Haslam confessed that, while he still thought “Insure Tennessee” was the best solution to Tennessee’s health-care issues and would like to see it brought back up in regular session, he saw no realistic way of doing that.
Still, not only Fitzhugh but a bill opponent, state Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) said Wednesday, as the Haslam bill was about to go up in smoke, that there would likely be efforts to revive it during the regular session, which begins next week.
More to come later on Special Session and its failure.