Partisan Fracas at Lawmakers Summit

For an organization that prides itself on bipartisanship, the National Conference of State Legislatures annual legislative summit erupted last week in a fractious policy debate that left some members vowing never to return to the gathering.

Republican legislators said they were steamrolled by Democrats who voted to pass a series of resolutions supporting a public insurance option for heath care, cap-and-trade legislation and the Obama administration’s international trade policy. The lawmakers complained that the positions do not accurately reflect the will of most state legislators and risk tarnishing the organization’s bipartisan identity.

“The purpose of the National Conference of State Legislatures has always been to have a healthy discussion and be able to come up with something that the majority can live with,” State Senator Judy Lee (R-ND) said in an interview. “We had this quite strident, quite pointed pro-Obama policy come to the floor. It doesn’t suit, in my opinion, the spirit of the NCSL.”

Lee, the chairwoman of the group’s health committee, said that she and other GOP legislators who attended the week-long conference in Philadelphia were particularly unhappy about a health care reform resolution that endorsed a public option. Any federal health care package “should include public insurance options side-by-side with commercial insurance for those for whom private insurance is not the best option,” the resolution read.

Many of the same lawmakers also took issue with an environmental position statement that discussed cap-and-trade as well as a statement thanking President Obama “for his commitment to respecting state sovereignty and improving federal-state relations” on trade issues.

The decision to include praise for Obama was a move that even caught the incoming vice president of the organization’s Executive Committee, State Rep. Melvin Neufeld (R-Kan), by surprise.

“Never before had a resolution ever been run up where it mentioned the president by name,” Neufeld said. “It was inappropriate and there was a lot of angst among our members.”

Though policies only pass if they are backed by at least three-quarters of the 52 states and territories that sent representatives to the conference, Republicans said they were stymied by Democrats who outnumbered them by a more than two-to-one margin, according to an unofficial tally.

“I’m not a fool politically,” Lee said. “I knew that the hijacking was coming.”

Lee’s colleague, North Dakota GOP State Sen. Dick Dever, who kept a count, said that this year’s conference included 579 Democratic legislators and only 255 Republicans. Dever said that one state – Idaho – brought only Republican members to the conference but there were a dozen states that had only Democratic representation. NCSL officials said they were still compiling an official count of attendees.

Lee said that she and other conference-goers were puzzled by the lopsided partisan imbalance.

Carl Tubbesing, the deputy executive director of NCSL, defended the organization, saying that the membership and the policies enacted this year mirror the national political landscape.

“We firmly and passionately believe that we are a bipartisan organization and that we don’t tilt one way or the other. Our bylaws and rules are written to guarantee that,” Tubbesing said. “When there are more legislatures that are Republican our policies may reflect that a little bit, and when there are more legislatures controlled by Democrats -- as there are now -- the policies may reflect that.”

The health care reform resolution won approval by a 38 to 11 vote, with three states abstaining because their members were evenly split. It didn’t take long for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who had been slated to address the conference but cancelled her appearance, to applaud the group for approving the policy.

“Elected officials from across the country came out strongly in support of health insurance reform,” Sebelius said in a statement last Friday. “State legislators know that we can’t afford the health care status quo.”

Republican legislators said they worried the resolution would be used as fodder by Democrats in their health reform efforts even though many GOP members disagreed with the provision supporting a public option.

Rep. Brad Dee (R-Ut) said the vote amounted to a “shout-out for Obama’s health care plan.” It caused enough grumbling within his delegation, he said, that some members have discussed pulling out of NCSL entirely.

Neufeld said he hoped the ruckus at this year’s conference would not permanently damage the organization, and cautioned that legislators should not confuse the NCSL with organizations that promote the interests of states but that have an ideological bent, such as the Progressive States Network, a liberal group, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which favors free-market and conservative principles.

Earlier this week, 167 ALEC members sent a letter to Congressional leaders voicing their opposition to a public health insurance option that they said “will trample states’ rights and lead Americans down the road to single-payer health care.”

David Litvack, the Democratic leader of the Utah House of Representatives who often finds himself on the losing end of policy debates in the Republican-controlled State House, said he was pleased to vote in favor of the health care resolution in his state caucus. Ultimately, Utah was one of the states that opposed the resolution when it came up for a full vote. He said the notion that this year’s conference represented a liberal takeover of NCSL was overblown.

"If there is an effort to remove Utah’s participation in NCSL that is something I would fight vigorously against,” he said. “NCSL has been an outstanding organization for Democrats and Republicans, so I think there’s great value in it.”

Though she spoke bitterly about the outcome of last week’s summit, Senator Lee of North Dakota also said she would not abandon the group.

“What states have to do is be more vigilant about sending a delegation that accurately reflects their own legislature,” she said. “We can’t let this adversely affect the NCSL – it’s too important to sabotage.”

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