Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, speaks during a meeting on the House floor Thursday, Jan. 10. Credit: Eliza Wiley / Montana Free Press

HELENA — The Montana House of Representatives passed a major reform of its rules Thursday after unifying Republicans and gaining significant Democratic support.

Lawmakers adopted HR 1, which will dictate their operation during the 2019 session, with an 88-12 vote. The House will now pattern itself after the Senate when it comes to appointing representatives to committees and sending bills to those committees. In the past, assignments came from the speaker. Now they require a majority approval vote. Committees are also required to hold public hearings on all bills.

House rules became a bristly topic in the weeks ahead of the 2019 Legislative Session. In early December, the House Rules Committee adjourned without discussing proposed changes. Then, Republicans fractured and publicly bickered over the proposals. Some conservative GOP representatives urged county-level party officials to pressure moderate GOP representatives to withdraw support for reforms, arguing they curtailed majority Republican power.

But on Day 1 of the session, all 58 Republicans presented a unified front, voting along party lines to adopt the temporary rules. With Thursday’s vote, the new rules for the 2019 session largely reflect that compromise.

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“Look, I know everyone thinks there’s this big divide within the party,” said Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, a chief architect of the reforms. “We are a big group of visionaries and people that think we’re right. [But] under the speaker’s direction, and with his support, we all came together and worked out something we think, in the end, is a better set of rules.”

House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, had been a vocal critic of the rules reforms, but he said Republican lawmakers have since made peace, at least for now.

“We’re trying,” Tschida said. “And I think both sides are working in good faith, without a doubt.”

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The rules reforms also come with a tweak to the blast motion vote. In past sessions, the House required a supermajority of 60 votes to blast bills to the floor for debate after they became stuck in committees.

Early on, the so-called Solutions Caucus — a loose group of moderate Republicans with murky membership — advocated for changing the blast motion rule to a simple majority, or 51 votes.

In an apparent compromise, the GOP factions agreed on pegging the vote to the same number of seats held by the majority party.

For 2019, that means 58 votes will be required to blast a bill from committee since Republicans hold 58 seats.

Minority Democrats, who hold 42 seats, supported the simple majority blast motion. Their frustration with the 58-vote revision became apparent as the rules bill moved through committee.

“We don’t think a small subset of a minority should be able to block the will of a simple majority of the House that’s working in a bipartisan fashion,” said Minority Whip Kim Abbott, D-Helena, a member of the House Rules Committee.

Lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns about “kill committees,” which are committees stacked with lawmakers loyal to the speaker. The speaker could send a bill he didn’t support to a kill committee where he knew it would be tabled, and thus prevent the bill from reaching the floor without the 60-vote supermajority blast.

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Some Democratic leaders called reforms to committee assignments a step in the right direction. But they said pegging the blast motion vote to majority party seats was steeped in partisan politics.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, said changing the blast motion to a floating number was “absurd.”

The Montana House of Representatives adopted HR 1, a major overall of House rules, with an 88-12 vote Thursday, Jan. 10. Credit: Eliza Wiley / Montana Free Press

We’re still letting politics get in the way of doing government,” Schreiner said. “These are just arbitrary numbers that really have no basis in the way government functions, other than giving a political advantage to a group of people.”

As lawmakers met on the House floor Thursday afternoon, however, it appeared to have been under an olive branch. Most Democrats voted with Republicans to adopt the rules reforms.

“We said all along that we were going to fight for majority rule, but at the end of the day we needed to get the job done so we could start working on real issues for the people of Montana,” Schreiner said. “We’re not here for political games. We did our best to get what we wanted across, and it was time to move on.”

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.