Anti-vaxxers protesting House Bill 1638, which would remove the personal belief exemption for the measles vaccine.
Anti-vaxxers protesting House Bill 1638, which would remove the "personal belief" exemption for the measles vaccine. Lester Black

Though the Washington State Senate voted to remove the personal belief exemption for the measles vaccine last week, it's worth noting just how hard Republicans fought to allow parents the right to throw measles parties for their kids. Especially in a moment when the disease, which was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, is currently spreading across the nation and endangering the lives of immunosuppressed children who rely on herd immunity.

Last Wednesday, a few minutes before Senate Republicans pulled a bunch of parliamentary moves to kill the vaccine bill, some Republican staff members were giggling in the wings of the state senate. Over on the Democratic side, the majority counsel was fuming, directing every senator she could find back onto the floor. The Republicans were about to pull some shit, and she knew it.

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Since there is technically a limited amount of floor time, minority parties try to spend more time debating bills than passing bills.

As a partial workaround, the majority created a rule allowing for a "4:55 bill." This rule allows the Senate to stop what they're doing at 4:55 p.m. and immediately consider a new bill. After they vote on that new bill, they return to the bill they were working on before the 4:55 bill popped up.

This rule allows the Senate to blow past their self-imposed 5 p.m. cutoff for considering new legislation, and it gives the majority party a way to allow "debate" on a controversial bill without submitting to obstruction tactics.

Unfortunately, with the Senate's current crop of Republicans, a bill designed to prevent the spread of the measles counts as "controversial." Knowing this, Democrats planned to introduce the vaccine bill just before that day's 4:55 bill, a proposal that would add a behavioral health campus inside the University of Washington's medical school, and Republicans planned to pull every move they possibly could to prevent that from happening.

Once it was time to introduce the vaccine bill, the Republicans got going.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, a fake Democrat who recently told a fake kidnapping story to explain his reason for voting to shield himself from common public disclosure practices, tried to introduce a bill he couldn't technically introduce. His motion was denied on technical grounds.

In the wake of Sheldon's failure, Sen. Shelly Short sprang up to introduce a bill she wanted the Senate immediately to consider. In order to delay as much as possible, she and Sen. Minority Leader Mark Schoesler spoke for a while on the bill.

As 4:55 drew closer, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig asked Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who was presiding, whether he could do anything to cut short this delay tactic. Habib told him that all senators can make a motion to cut off debate on a bill under consideration. Billig made that motion.

The Senate then voted on Billig's motion to stop debate on Short's bill. Democrats shouted YES. Republicans shouted NO. Republicans started rumbling and yelling from the floor in earnest at this point. To delay even further, Republicans called for "division," where senators have to stand up to have their vote be counted. They did that, and Billig's motion carried.

But then Sen. Short, again, to waste time, demanded a roll call vote, where each individual senator has to vote yes or no with their voice. Republicans took their sweet time doing that, saying the longest possible sentence they could during their vote. (e.g. "Senator Rivers votes aye," rather than just "aye.")

In the middle of the roll call vote, Sen. Sheldon stood up to invoke Rule 24—again, to waste time—which is a "call of the Senate." This is a fun move. During a call of the Senate, the speaker checks to see if all the senators are in the chamber. If a senator is missing and is not excused, the state patrol is tasked to find the missing senator and drag them into the chambers.

Habib continued with the roll call vote, though he was repeatedly interrupted by Sheldon, who kept wanting to explain how the call of the Senate worked. Habib was very much aware of Rule 24 and kindly explained that the only person who had not voted, and thus may not have been present, was Sheldon. Therefore, Habib was going to keep doing the roll call to figure out if he had to send the cops after any absent but unexcused senators.

With no absences, Habib then called for the vaccine bill to be introduced, which it was, but not without lots of shouting from Republicans. After the bill was read in, the clock struck 4:55 and Habib called for the secretary to introduce the mental health school bill.

In a last-ditch attempt to delay, Sen. Doug Ericksen, who is a registered foreign agent "consultant" for the dictatorship of Cambodia, just kept yelling "Mr. President" until he was eventually acknowledged. Sen. Ericksen objected that Sheldon's call of the Senate had been ignored, and so he started wasting more time explaining why he thought that.

At this point, Habib explained why he hadn't granted Sheldon's call, and he included a fun little joke along the way: "At some point we can sit down and I can go through these rules with you," Habib said, "But a call of the Senate does not seek out members who are excused. That's the reason we excuse them, Sen. Ericksen. The whole point of being excused is so you're not subject to a call of the Senate. If there were a senator absent...then that motion would have been in order at that time. As it was, at that time, every member had voted except the very present—even I can see that he's present—Senator Sheldon, who made the motion for a call of the Senate." Since Sheldon was the only person who hadn't voted or hadn't been excused and yet was still speaking, Habib was saying, there was no way he was absent, so Habib moved on with the Senate's business.

Though there was some question on the day of whether the vaccine bill was actually introduced in time, over the phone, Habib confirmed there was never any question in his mind. As a survivor of childhood cancer, he said it was "particularly important" for him to get that bill on the floor.

"I know what it's like for kids who are immunosuppressed and can’t be vaccinated themselves," he said. "I would feel terrible if, in my role, I had done something inadvertently that would prevent the Senate from acting on this bill this year."

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"I think more about parliamentary procedure than anyone else in that building, so I was going to make sure this was done correctly because then it’s on me if it’s not," Habib added.

Habib also emphasized the fact that politicians in the minority commonly shout for their cause on the floor, or use delay tactics to kill bills. "We did crazy stuff in the minority," he said. "Where you cross the line, from my perspective, is if you start insulting or being disrespectful. I didn’t like that they were yelling, but I think overall trying to do those kinds of motions is to be expected." He claimed no ill will between the caucuses as a result of the spat.

Though majorities expect this kind of behavior from minorities, it's worth highlighting, however, that all of this nonsense from Republicans—the yelling, the parliamentary chicanery, the flubbed parliamentary chicanery—was done in the service of endangering the lives of children with parents who believe bad science. They wasted all that time and energy trying to make the world a better place for measles. This is the kind of thing the majority of Republicans in the Legislature are fighting for.

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