HELENA — It started like almost any family dinner at a local bar and grill — everyone sort of rehashes their day before the waitress brings out their orders. The dad razzes one of the kids for something and pretty soon the whole table is trading jokes.
But it wasn’t a family. It was eight Republican Montana state lawmakers who feel it is their duty to strengthen states’ rights, and hope to do that in part by nullifying federal laws.
Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel poked at Whitefish Rep. Derek Skees for voting in favor of motion that day to move a tabled Democratic bill out of committee. The bill would have protected “gender identity or expression, sexual orientation” in the Montana Human Rights Act, and Skees was one of four Republicans to vote for the motion.
“You were my hero,” Kerns said, holding back a laugh. “Now you’re my heroine.”
Rep. Alan Hale of Basin, who also voted for the motion, sat across from Kerns but eluded ribbing.
After Reps. Champ Edmunds of Missoula and James Knox of Billings sat down at the big polished wood table the conversation turned to the nullification bills the group will bring to the House floor today. They began working on who would say what and when they will say it.
Today Skees has a bill that would “prohibit infringement on the state of Montana’s Constitutional right to nullification of any federal statute, mandate or executive action,” by enacting the Montana Nullification Reaffirmation Act.
He is also carrying a resolution to nullify the federal health care reform act.
Though sitting at the side of the table, Kerns led the planning. The group already agreed that they weren’t speaking across the aisle. Some said that it was no use, that no Dems would ever come over, but Laurel Rep. Dan Kennedy held the faith.
“Anything is possible,” he said. No one answered him, though.
Taking it down to brass tacks, they were eight men looking for eight votes. Not so much because the bills needed them to clear the House, they just wanted to single out the eight Republicans who usually refuse to go for nullification.
Skees said they probably just needed a lose plan because they had all been talking nullification so much lately the set list was pretty solid.
But Kerns laid out the basics. He noted Democratic Rep. Jon Sesso would chair the floor session so that meant a little less control for the group. Then he told freshman Rep. Ryan Osmundson of Buffalo that if the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution came up in debate over the bills he was to stand up.
“Again?” Osmundson asked.
Then the group agreed that if Dems brought up South Carolina’s cessation and nullification’s role in the Civil War, Edmunds, a South Carolina native, would rise to argue.
“Cry a little bit if you can,” Kerns joked, tying back to earlier cracks made at the table about Dems having too soft of feelings and only making emotional arguments.
A few other defensive strategies were talked over then the dinner winded down and some left.
At the end, Edmunds, Skees and Kerns sat with a vote sheet between them, looking for their eight names.
Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney, made the list. He vehemently opposed a state sovereignty resolution on the floor that day, saying, “Quit scaring our constituents and quit making us look like a bunch of buffoons.”
But when the group got up to leave, the list remained incomplete.
Kerns, who has been at it the longest, was unconcerned. States’ rights legislation and nullification efforts have already been successful in the House session but he saw the long odds of bringing full Republican support behind the measures.
“We’ll never get them,” he said. “It’s a pipe dream. You just fight the battles you can with what you have.”
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)