In a letter sent Friday, Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams and Majority Leader Martin Looney formalized comments that Williams had made Thursday in a Courant interview: They want the subcommittees of the Newtown legislative task force that they formed in mid-January to submit their recommendations by Tuesday, so that legislative leaders can “begin negotiations … at 3 p.m” that same day on provisions of a comprehensive emergency bill responding to the Dec. 14 school massacre.
The gun violence subcommittee of the task force is due to submit its long-awaited recommendations earlier Tuesday.
The two Democratic senators sent a letter to their fellow Democrats in charge of the House, Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey and Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz – and to the minority leaders in both the Senate and House, Senate Republican Leader John McKinney and House Republican Leader Larry Cafero. All six leaders – Williams, Looney, Sharkey, Aresimowicz, McKinney, and Cafero – are co-chairs of the 50-member bipartisan Newtown task force, and thus are equals.
But it is the two top Senate Democrats, Williams and Looney, who now are seeking to drive this legislative bus.
Williams and Looney wrote that when the task force was formed in January, “leaders from both parties pledged to work diligently toward the goal of taking action by the end of February,” which was Thursday. “The deadline is here but unfortunately Connecticut is still waiting for results. The time to act is now…. We should vote on a bill no later than Wednesday, March 13th.”
They went on: “Since the tragedy in Newtown legislators from both parties have acknowledged that the eyes of the nation are on Connecticut. During the past six weeks legislators have spent many hours listening to public testimony, learning from experts, and sharing ideas. Ultimately our colleagues identified many common-sense solutions. Governor Malloy has also offered his own proposals.
“Other states – New York, Colorado, and Maryland – have taken action since the Newtown tragedy. In Connecticut, we must not bow to pressure from those who would delay action as a way of blocking common sense reforms. Please accept our invitation to meet on Tuesday to move forward with the strong and comprehensive measures to protect our children and communities.”
The Senate Democrats’ tactic is unusual: It’s one thing for the Democratic Senate leaders to address such a prodding letter, seeking to call the legislative tune and sounding like a partisan press release, to Republican leaders. But it’s extraordinary for them to direct it at their Democratic counterparts in the House, Sharkey and Aresimowicz.
Williams has been expressing dissatisfaction with the pace of things, however, and Friday’s letter is the apparent result.
In an interview Thursday, Williams had said “frankly, I’m losing patience,” and said the emergency bill should include an expanded and strengthened ban on assault weapons and a limitation on high-capacity ammunition magazines of 10 bullets or less. It has been unclear whether bipartisan support is there for those proposals – which also would be accompanied by proposals to improve the state’s mental health system and beef up school security. But Williams said the assault weapons ban and the limitations on magazines should be approved, with or without Republicans’ support, this month. Democrats enjoy majorities of nearly 2 to 1 in both the state House and Senate.
Williams’ growing impatience has put a noticeable distance between his approach and that of his Democratic counterpart in the House – Sharkey, the speaker.
Sharkey has been discussing the potential legislation in more moderate terms than the Senate leaders. He said this week that if bipartisan consensus can’t be reached on provisions of the emergency bill that’s to be passed in mid-March, he would set aside a day or two in May for House consideration of additional provisions that Democrats want to approve by the normal, non-emergency process.
But Williams, with unusual bluntness in relation to a fellow Democratic leader, called that a bad idea: “For us to pass a weak bill, and then say that maybe we’ll get around [in May] to doing the things that we should have done now … I think would be a disaster for the state of Connecticut.”
Asked for a reaction to Williams’ comment amd Friday’s letter, Sharkey’s staff spokesman, Larry Perosino, said that the speaker’s position hadn’t changed: He will only sign on to an emergency-certified bill with provisions approved by the bipartisan task force. “Speaker Sharkey has been committed to the work of the bipartisan task force, and will only sign an e-certified bill that meets the consensus of the task force. And that consensus means there has to be some level of support from each caucus.”
There are four legislative caucuses: House and Senate Democrats, and House and Senate Republicans. If some Republicans in the House and Senate support the emergency bill — not necessarily the majority of those Republicans, but at least some — then that would likely mean the bill get majority votes in each legislative chamber, presuming Democrats stay in line with their leaders.
The separation of Williams and Sharkey on the gun issue during the week was not lost on political observers. One veteran Democratic political operative noted that Looney, one of the Friday letter’s co-authors, is co-chairman of the task force’s key committee on gun violence — the one that probably has irked Williams the most with the slowness of its deliberations. “I find it interesting that Senator Looney is sending that letter, because he is in effect telling himself to get off the dime,” the Democrat said.
Meanwhile, a prominent group of gun control activists in the state is calling on Sharkey to join with Williams and help break the deadlock on Malloy’s gun proposals.
“House Speaker Sharkey has been patient in trying to reach a consensus with the Task Force, but it is becoming apparent that a consensus on comprehensive reforms cannot be reached,” said Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.
“Too much time has passed. The three-month anniversary of the Newtown incident is coming up on March 14,” he said. ”That date should be an absolute deadline for action in the form of a floor vote of the full membership on the Governor’s proposals.”
Pinciaro said the eyes of the nation are on the state.
“Speaker Sharkey must join with Senator Williams and Governor Malloy for action now,” he said.