Democrats in the Colorado House of Representatives on Saturday evening took the extraordinary step of limiting debate on two gun control bills to halt a Republican filibuster of the measures.
It appears to be the first time debate in the House has been limited in at least a decade. The move by the Democratic supermajority is sure to heighten partisan tensions in the chamber during the second half of the 2023 lawmaking term. It will also likely prompt the GOP to pursue other delay tactics, such as asking that bills be read aloud at length, which Democrats can’t stop.
House Majority Leader Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, moved Friday evening to limit debate to one more hour each on Senate Bill 168, which would make it easier to sue gun manufacturers and sellers, and Senate Bill 170, which would expand Colorado’s so-called red flag gun law.
The vote to limit debate was 39-19, with all the Republicans present in the chamber voting against the motion and all but one of the Democrats present voting “yes.” Six Democrats and one Republican were excused.
The lone Democrat who voted “no” on the motion to limit debate was Rep. Matthew Martinez of Monte Vista. “Open dialogue is something that we need to have,” Martinez said in an interview.
The GOP on Friday blocked progress on Senate Bill 168 until the House adjourned at 11 p.m. The House then reconvened at 9 a.m. on Saturday and debated Senate Bill 170 until 6 p.m., when Duran made the motion to limit debate.
Total debate on Senate Bill 170 lasted about nine hours, while total debate on Senate Bill 168 lasted about 10 hours.
In the Colorado General Assembly, the legislature’s rules allow the majority party — in this case Democrats — to limit discussion whenever they wish, making every long debate of a bill with an already certain outcome little more than a performance.
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Under the legislature’s rules, the House and Senate can vote to limit second-reading debate to as little as an hour through a simple majority vote.
That rarely happens, however, because it’s considered the “nuclear option,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat. The last time debate was limited in the Capitol was in 2019, Moreno said, when Democrats cut off discussion in the Senate during an overnight debate on a bill setting greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals in state law.
But Republicans in the House this year have said they are willing to filibuster legislation overnight to try and prevent its passage, and they did just that earlier this month on another gun measure and a bill authorizing cities to allow overdose prevention centers, also known as safe-use or safe-injection sites. Both of those bills passed despite the verbal blockade.
On Saturday, Republicans were delaying on Senate Bill 170 into the evening hours. Democrats were trying to negotiate with GOP lawmakers to break the impasse, but those talks clearly failed.
“I spent the past two days negotiating in what I thought was good faith with our colleagues across the aisle on Senate Bill 168,” tweeted Rep. Jennifer Parenti, an Erie Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill. “On multiple occasions, agreements were made and then broken. This didn’t happen because we can’t agree with Republicans — it’s because they can’t agree with themselves.”
Each legislative session in Colorado is limited to 120 days, and with less than 50 days left in this year’s lawmaking term and much of Democrats’ big agenda still pending, concern has been building in the Capitol about whether the GOP could fill up the calendar with long debates.
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“Coloradans are demanding action, not delay tactics,” Duran and House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, said in a written statement. “An overwhelming majority of Colorado voters elected us to govern responsibly because we made clear commitments to prevent gun violence, make housing more affordable, protect access to abortion and reproductive care, invest in our students and mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change — and we must deliver.”
The House’s two top Democrats added: “We take seriously the importance of our democratic process and of authentically engaging with the minority party on bills. At the end of the day, the smallest minority in 60 years does not have the right to stop votes on legislation that the vast majority of Coloradans desperately want to see passed. “
Finally, Duran and McCluskie said “the rules of the institution exist to respect the will of the voters.”
Duran told The Colorado Sun that Democrats would limit debate in the House on a case-by-case basis rather than on every bill. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said.
There are 46 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the House. The GOP was hoping to win back some seats in the November election but only fell further into the minority.
Democrats control the Senate and governor’s seat, too, and it’s highly unlikely the GOP can win back some power at the Capitol until the 2026 election.
Republicans, who only have delay tactics at their disposal to stop bills, called the decision to limit debate tyrannical.
“This is an historic and appalling move by the majority to silence the voice of the minority,” House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington lawmaker and the top Republican in the House, said in a written statement. “The legislature is the place for honest and lengthy debate, and this drastic step removes that ability for the minority to represent their constituents effectively. Today will be looked back upon as a dark day for the democratic process in Colorado. It is not enough to have the votes to pass legislation already. Now, the tyranny of the majority is complete.”
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Dave Williams, chair of the Colorado GOP and a former state representative, said Republicans would find other ways to delay.
“The Dems don’t know the hell they unleashed for the rest of the calendar,” he told The Colorado Sun.
Shortly after the motion to limit debate passed, Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Penrose Republican, asked that Senate Bill 170 be read at length, once again grinding the chamber and lawmaking to a halt. It took an hour for the 38-page bill to be read, and Luck was not in the House chambers for much of the delay.
(Reading a bill at length is not considered “debate,” so it doesn’t count toward the limit.)
Senate Bill 170 was approved on a voice vote at about 8 p.m. Several House Republicans were not in the chamber when the vote was taken.
The House is expected to be back at work on Sunday. The legislative session adjourns May 8.