The Buzz: The SC Senate’s next post-Obamacare battles

thebuzz@thestate.comMarch 22, 2014 

After efforts to block the federal Affordable Care Act in South Carolina imploded this week, state senators will focus on getting their favorite bills passed before the May 1 deadline to have them considered in the House.

The gambit? Get the bills into one of the calendar’s few priority spots.

Majority Leader Harvey Peeler already took one with a proposal that would make struggling third-grade readers repeat that year in school.

Several other bills are vying for priority spots:

• Fix an unconstitutional state law that formed most of the state’s 46 county election boards. Not doing so, Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said could mean legal challenges that result in whole elections being tossed.

•  Enact a statewide ban on texting while driving, which Martin and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, want.

• Expand the state’s public 4-year-old kindergarten program statewide, which Democrats, especially the bill’s sponsor Sheheen, really, really want.

•  And, the favorite of the Senate’s ultra-conservative William Wallace caucus, a bill aimed at fighting anti-Common Core education standards in the state. That bill started out as a repeal of the standards but morphed in committee to leave the standards in place, while pulling the state out of a testing consortium with other states.

One rub: All four bills are poisoned with objections placed by other senators that prevent them from getting a vote. Expect some deals to get the bills released.

Poker faces on

The fight against the Affordable Care Act died Wednesday like a bad hand in a game of poker.

The fatal flaw Obamacare opponents, led by Sen. Tom Davis, made was in trying to rewrite a House-passed version of the bill that many senators thought was unconstitutional and would not survive a lawsuit.

During a two-week debate on the bill, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, held his cards.

Hutto knew once the senators ended debate by evoking cloture, no new amendments – efforts to save a bill that Davis sponsored – could be added.

On Wednesday, Hutto watched as Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the Senate president, sided with Davis, a Beaufort Republican, who said that changes a Democrat wanted to make to the bill were not allowed because they were unrelated to the House bill’s original intent.

(Actually, Hutto said he first noticed McConnell’s strict adherence to the rules during a January debate on a bill allowing guns in bars. Then, the lieutenant governor struck down an amendment that would allow anyone to carry guns at any time, saying it was unrelated. “If you know the ump calls a tight strike zone, you know you will have a tight strike zone,” Hutto said.)

The Senate health care bill had about 80 amendments, almost all from Democrats, remaining after Davis won his argument. Debate on each amendment would last 20 minutes. (That’s 27 hours.)

After several more hours of deliberations, a deal was struck. The Senate would skip ahead to an amendment from Davis that included new rules regulating the navigators who help people register for the expanded heath care insurance that was not in the House bill.

If Davis lost on McConnell’s ruling, the sides would withdraw their remaining amendments and vote on the House bill. It was the Senate’s version of calling each other’s hands.

“We said, ‘We knew where the train was going. Let’s have McConnell call it,’” Hutto said.

Davis introduced his amendment. Hutto objected. McConnell ruled it was not relevant. Davis appealed. The Senate sustained the ruling 28-14 with help of 14 Republicans.

The original House version of the bill never stood a chance. The Senate defeated it 33-9 – killing the State House’s major efforts to hurt the new health care law this year.

“I thought I had the cards,” Davis said. “I gave my shot while we were up at the table.”

Running to lose

The 2014 election season is shaping up to have the least amount of contested races, and the slowest start of any in Katon Dawson’s memory.

The Buzz caught up with the former S.C. GOP chairman at his house Thursday, where he was hosting a fundraiser for Meka Childs, an ex-deputy superintendent under Republican state schools’ chief Mick Zais who hopes to succeed her boss.

(Dawson co-hosted the party with former S.C. Commerce secretary Joe Taylor. Zais, who introduced and endorsed Childs, also attended with his wife.)

Dawson said he’s surprised more Democrats are not running in June’s primary, especially since they are the minority party, and then he explained why running might be a good idea.

Back in the day when the GOP was growing, Dawson said Republicans used the primaries to gain exposure and build the party. Facing unfavorable odds, he and other party leaders went looking for sacrificial lambs.

“We’d pick people to run for office and tell them, ‘We know you’re going to lose!’”

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed.

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