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Minnesota Legislature gets ugly, loud

Standing among fellow Republicans, Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall waits to speak during a House floor fight Tuesday over the handling of a transportation bill. Scott Wente/Minn. State Capitol Bureau1 / 2
Minnesota House Republicans and staff huddle Tuesday afternoon following shouting matches that brought the full House to a halt. Republicans complained that they were not allowed to offer all of their amendments to a transportation bill, while DFLers said time had run out on debate. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau2 / 2

ST. PAUL - If Tuesday paints a picture of how the 2009 legislative session will end, it won't be pretty.

An exchange between legislative leaders and a key Pawlenty administration official Tuesday morning was as tense of an exchange as seen in the Capitol this year. And things got worse a few hours later in the House chamber.

Republicans shouted down the Democratic speaker when she ruled that time had expired on a transportation debate, with two GOP amendments not yet heard.

"I don't know if this is some type of flexing of the muscles or what," an angry House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said. "If you gag these two people from offering their amendments, who's next ... who are you going to gag next?"

It was the fiercest House debate since the late 1980s, veteran Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said.

Lieder was not optimistic for a smooth end to the session, which must pass a $33 billion budget while plugging a $4.6 billion deficit.

"I don't think the last three weeks are going to be easy," he said.

The hour-long dust-up ended when House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, sent word to Seifert that if Republicans quit objecting, Democrats would allow the debate to resume and GOP Reps. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake and Mark Buesgens of Jordan could offer the remaining amendments.

Seifert gathered the most upset of his troops on the side of the House chamber and talked to them several minutes before they accepted Kelliher's offer.

Before taking the Kelliher plan, Republicans continually shouted parliamentary motions designed to stall votes, at times drowning out an exasperated Kelliher.

Run-of-the-mill Democrats generally sat back and enjoyed the show.

Kelliher downplayed the episode.

"Members are starting to feel the crunch of the session..." Kelliher said. "They feel a lot of pressure right now to get the work done."

The pressure began to show Tuesday morning when a legislative commission met with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's top financial advisor.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said that it appeared Republican Pawlenty intentionally mislead the media, and thus the public, last week when he said that his budget plan cuts more money than the Senate-passed budget.

Democrats conducted a mini-Watergate-style inquiry of Commissioner Tom Hanson, asking how much Pawlenty knew about the budget document he gave to reporters and when it knew it.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, grilled Hanson about what Pawlenty knew, saying he thought what the governor handed out was strictly political.

Commissioner Hanson of Minnesota Management and Budget shot back: "I take real issue with your comments that we are politicizing" budget issues.

The tense exchange came during the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy, a panel that is to negotiate major budget issues.

Late Tuesday afternoon, legislative leaders and Pawlenty met, reaching an agreement to allow House and Senate negotiators to proceed with fiscally small bills dealing with agriculture, veterans' affairs, transportation, economic development, environment, energy and public works projects. Big spending bills, such as for education and health, will come later.

Leaders and Pawlenty did not agree on how much to spend in those areas, but, Kelliher added, the main development during the meeting was: "We did agree that it is very important to agree on the facts."

Seifert agreed that the leaders' meeting produced no deals, but contrasted it to the earlier shouting match, "At least no one left angry."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.