House Speaker Matt Regier took no press questions Tuesday and provided little insight into how he and other legislative leaders will handle the final days of a 2023 session increasingly consumed by conflict between Regier and Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the state’s first openly transgender female lawmaker.
In short, a feeling of disarray has descended on the House. Tuesday’s floor session was canceled, adding to a backlog of remaining legislative work with only a few days left in the session. The Senate, meanwhile, has been chugging along, and will soon send its amendments to the state budget, House Bill 2, back to the House. Even Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who condemned statements Zephyr made last week, seems interested in the Legislature resolving the matter quickly, telling a TV news affiliate that “every minute the Legislature spends on this is a minute they aren’t working on legislators’ important bills or Montanans’ priorities.”
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, the first openly transgender woman in the Montana Legislature, will likely not be allowed to speak about bills on the House floor for the remainder of the 2023 session after Republicans took issue with comments she made this week about a bill restricting gender-affirming health care for trans minors.
“The timeline moving forward is very fluid. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done,” Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, the House Rules Committee chair, said Tuesday.
Regier, in his weekly press conference Tuesday, called Monday’s protest a dark day for the state and the Montana House of Representatives and took aim at both Zephyr and the media covering the weeklong saga. He did not describe any next steps, nor did he explain why the House canceled its floor session Tuesday.
“This is also a disappointing day for Montana media,” he said. “The entire story was not told. Headlines that have happened over the last week stating that the Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone is false. Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debate while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr.”
Regier then retreated to his office, ignoring questions about whether he would pursue disciplinary action against Zephyr and why the House canceled its floor session, a move that puts the chamber out of sync with the Senate with only a few days left in the session and a number of major bills still to be decided, including the state’s budget.
Last week, Zephyr suggested Republican lawmakers would have blood on their hands for supporting Senate Bill 99, legislation restricting gender-affirming care for transgender minors. She later said she chose her words with precision to highlight the increased risk of suicide for trans youth.
But Regier determined that she breached decorum, and though he did not officially censure her or call her to order, he’s since refused to recognize Zephyr during floor debates, as is his prerogative as the speaker under House rules. He suggested last week that he would keep doing so until she apologizes.
Democrats objected, leading to a series of votes in recent days on motions to uphold Regier’s decision. Super-majority Republicans have generally stood by Regier.
The standoff came to a head Monday when, after another vote to affirm Regier’s rule, protesters in the gallery erupted in chants of “Let her speak” and “Whose House? Our House.” Regier ordered the gallery closed and police swept in, arresting seven protesters on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing. Zephyr, meanwhile, stood on the House floor with a microphone pointed toward the gallery, even as most lawmakers went off to the sides or left the chamber.
House Republican leadership in a statement later called the protest a “riot by far-left agitators.”
“House Leadership will still stand firm in our commitment to decorum, safety, and order. We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena,” the statement reads.
Now a major question lingers unanswered: What happens next?
After Regier’s press conference Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, entered the speaker’s office along with Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman. Neither emerged with much in the way of insight, at least not that they were willing to share.
Protesters temporarily shut down business in the Montana House of Representatives Monday after Republican leadership again refused to call on Rep. Zooey Zephyr, extending an ongoing standoff stemming from the transgender lawmaker’s comments last week against a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors.
“They’re looking into various options that they have,” Abbott said, adding that she does think some sort of official disciplinary action will be announced on the House floor when the representatives reconvene on Wednesday.
Knudsen, who has been advising Regier on his options, said leadership hasn’t made a decision, but that there are several paths toward disciplinary action.
Those range from expulsion, which under the Montana Constitution requires a demonstration of “good cause” and a two-thirds vote, to some sort of motion to officially censure Zephyr or strip her of committee assignments.
“This is all so nebulous just because the body needs to be able to protect itself. You can’t put in rules everything that could happen,” Knudsen said.
The limited time left in the session further complicates the decision, he said, though he added that he believes there would be broad support in the Republican caucus for some kind of discipline.
Abbott, the House minority leader, said she expects her caucus to be unified against any such action.
“The main thing that I know is everyone in our caucus believes that this is extreme, that this is disenfranchising 11,000 people, and that the focus should be on the legislation that is moving through this body that is really harmful to the trans, non-binary and two-spirit community,” Abbott said. “There’s no disagreement on the fact that everyone in our caucus believes that Zooey should be recognized … and then I think people have different opinions on tactics and strategy.”
Knudsen himself is in an interesting position. Before the session began, he challenged Regier for the speakership as the avatar of the interests of comparatively moderate members of the Republican caucus. He declined to comment whether he would have handled the past week’s events differently than Regier.
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