Missed it by that much

Anne Donahue had a clever plan.

Notice I say “clever,” not “smart.” The Donahue amendment was a last-ditch attempt to derail H.98, the bill that would end the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccinations.

The amendment would have combined the philosophical and religious exemptions, and put more obstacles in the way of those seeking an exemption: reading educational materials, watching a video, having an in-person consultation with a health care practitioner. Donahue argued that these obstacles would achieve the goal of raising immunization rates without sacrificing parental choice.

It was clever because it played on lawmakers’ fears of taking a definitive stand, fears that are always amplified when there’s a loud and focused opposition.

It wasn’t smart because it would have done nothing to raise immunization rates.

I can say that with confidence because if the House had adopted the amendment, it would have been at odds with the Senate. With the Legislature careening toward adjournment and many pressing issues still unresolved, it’s a virtual certainty that H.98 would have been quietly shelved.

Of course, Donahue had to know that.

Whether you agree with her or not, she’s a crackerjack lawmaker. She knows the score, she knows how to play the game. Her amendment was nothing more than a gambit to derail H.98.

And it very nearly worked. The House vote on the Donahue amendment was the deciding moment in the debate. Once it failed by a razor-thin 73-71 margin, the passage of H.98 was a sure thing.

The amendment’s appeal was on full display yesterday morning, as the House Health Care Committee discussed H.98. Undecideds on the panel, including chair Bill Lippert, practically lunged at it like a drowning man grasping for a life preserver. Supporters of H.98 pointed out that Donahue had drafted her amendment over the weekend and that significant parts of it were untested.

For instance: ending the religious exemption raises Constitutional questions. Like, would Donahue really force Christian Scientists to consult with a doctor?

But the undecideds were looking for a way out. In fact, some argued to shelve H.98 entirely on the grounds that “we’re not ready.”

Which is how lawmakers say “We’ll offend somebody no matter what we do, so let’s do nothing.”

As the panel trudged through its third hour of discussion, it looked very much like one of two things would happen: the Donahue amendment would pass, or members would vote to shelve the bill.

And then they took a break, which turned out to be 45 minutes long.

When they came back, it was obvious that something had happened. Well, Lippert himself said so: “I have had conversations with the Speaker and leadership regarding the process and procedures involved.

“Whatever decision we make in committee, it will be up for debate on the floor. The option of not having the debate is not effectively an option. We could vote to defer, but the debate will be engaged today.”

Pause for tedious parliamentary note: Technically, the Health Care Committee did not “have” H.98, and could not change it. The committee had been asked to review the bill, take testimony, and report to the full House. If they’d voted to dump the bill, it would have remained on the House Calendar. If they’d amended the bill, the unamended version would still have been on the Calendar. Health Care’s recommendations would have carried weight, but they would have been nothing more than recommendations.

Back to our story. Lippert’s words took the air out of the “defer” balloon. The committee voted 8-3 not to defer.

Which took us back to the Donahue amendment. Just before the break, Rep. Chris Pearson had pointed out what I wrote above: that voting for the amendment was essentially a vote to kill H.98, because the Senate was unlikely to concur. “Voting for an amended H.98 is the same thing as putting it off till next year.”

I have to assume that Lippert et al. got the same message from House leadership. Because after the committee voted not to defer, it was clear that some members had changed their minds on the Donahue amendment. The last thing they wanted was a rerun of the vaccine debate in the 2016 session.

In the end, the House Health Care Committee voted 7-4 against the Donahue amendment. The four “noes” were a mixed bag: Republicans Anne Donahue and Doug Gage; Democrats Bill Lippert and Mark Woodward. The seven “yeses” were Republican Bob Bancroft; Democrats Tim Brigllin, Leigh Dakin, Kiah Morris and Avram Patt; Progressive Chris Pearson; and Independent Paul Poirier, who was the most forceful advocate for vaccination on the committee.

The impact of the committee vote was limited because of the parliamentary situation outlined above. But the process is worth reporting because it was a microcosm of the broader debate: a closely-debated, very tough choice between temporizing and making a firm decision.

The firm decision won in the House. By two votes.

I have some thoughts on why, but this post is long enough already. Second post coming later.

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