In a parliamentary maneuver that caught gay-rights supporters flat-footed, Republicans, joined by two conservative Senate Democrats, called a surprise vote that yanked the bill out of the Rules Committee and sent it to the Judiciary Committee.
The move could kill the legislation. After the bill passed the House for the third consecutive year, Senate Democratic leaders, fearing the bill would die in Judiciary, where they didn't have the votes, sent the bill instead to the Financial Institutions Committee, which passed the bill on to Rules. Under ordinary procedure, the bill would have passed from Rules to a floor vote of the full Senate.
However, Tuesday's unexpected maneuver, which is known in parliamentary lingo as "going to the ninth order," upended that procedure by throwing the bill into the unfriendly Judiciary Committee.
ñMoving it to another committee is essentially a vote against the bill," Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) said in floor speech opposing the shift. ñIt's a vote to promote in Washington state the perception that it's okay to discriminate."
The motion to make the shift was made by Senator Luke Esser, a Republican from Bellevue. The 23 Senate Republicans were joined by Senator Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from rural Southwest Washington who often votes with Republicans and by Senator James Hargrove, another conservative Democrat from Hoquiam. With the two Democrats support, the motion carried by a 25-24 vote.
Hargrove, an implacable opponent of the legislation, sits on the Judiciary Committee, giving opponents a majority there.
The legislation, if passed, would bar discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing and other matters. Some version of the bill has been proposed for 29 consecutive legislative sessions, including the last decade, by Rep. Ed Murray (D-Capitol Hill). A similar bill was signed into law in Maine in recent weeks, and is on the books in at least 15 other states as well.
In a statement, Murray, who is gay, said, "Supporters of the bill knew this sort of parliamentary maneuvering was possible. This will not stop our efforts... a majority of Washington citizens agree with us, and in the end, a majority of Senators will as well."
Governor Gregoire, who has come out strongly in favor of the legislation, was "very disappointed" by Tuesday's developments, according to gubernatorial spokesman Jerry Gilliland.
Gay-rights advocates expressed anger at the setback. "I'm disgusted. Discrimination is alive and well in the State of Washington," said Michael McAfoose, founder of ACTION Northwest.
In the wake of the setback, Democratic leaders were still expressing commitment to the legislation. Judiciary chair Adam Kline (D-Seattle) said that putting it back on track may require another ninth order move, which will be impossible if Republican senators remain unified, as they usually do. SANDEEP KAUSHIK