The annual session of the Florida Legislature nearly came to halt on Tuesday amid acrimony and finger-pointing.
Florida House Democrats kicked off the turmoil by using a procedural move to stall the pace of the session, requiring that all bills be read aloud in full. The move angered House Republicans, who used their own tactics to try to sidestep the maneuver, including bringing in a computer with a synthesized voice to read the measures rather than have a clerk do it. They also refused to answer questions about pending bills.
But it was also clear that votes by the Florida Senate against bills being sought by top House Republicans was also adding to a potential stalemate. The Senate voted down changes to the state's pension plan being pushed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The pension bill had been one of the speaker's top priorities.
The end result is that many bills that appeared on their way to passage were suddenly in jeopardy with just days left in the session. The session is scheduled to end on May 3 and legislators usually wait until the last week to pass the most important bills.
Two top measures still in limbo are a bill to change Florida's election system as well as a bill that could lead to professional sports team getting state money to help pay for stadium upgrades.
House Democrats are upset that Republicans are refusing to consider a measure that would utilize federal aid to extend health care coverage to roughly 1 million Floridians, as allowed by the federal health care overhaul. The bill was overwhelmingly passed by the Florida Senate on Tuesday but it appears unlikely to be considered by the House.
So the Democrats utilized a constitutional requirement that all bills must be read in full before they are voted on. This requirement is normally waived by a two-thirds vote. There are 44 Democrats in the 120-member House.
"It's unfortunate that we have had to take such unusual action today, but my Democratic colleagues and I believe that a drastic situation requires drastic tactics," said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation.
Republicans responded by using an "auto reader" machine to read bills. One Republican legislator — Rep. Elizabeth Porter — repeatedly refused to answer questions asked about one of her bills. Then Republicans postponed action on a bill that was sponsored by a Democrat.
Thurston met with Gov. Rick Scott early Tuesday and also asked that he call a special session on health care if the session ends without any action on health care coverage.
Scott said in February that he supported drawing down federal money to expand Medicaid coverage. He also supports the Senate plan which use federal aid to purchase private health insurance for poor Floridians.
It's not clear how long the standoff between the two sides will go on. Democrats were also resorting to ask a long series of questions about GOP bills that was also bringing the speed of the session to a near crawl.