Tensions rising between House and Senate

Senate snubs committee structure on health care bills

A correction and a clarification have been added to this story.

JUST AS THE LEGISLATURE heads into crunch time on Beacon Hill, tensions appear to be rising between the House and Senate over how bills should emerge from a key committee.

Under the Legislature’s rules, all bills dealing with health care are supposed to be reviewed and voted on by the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing before moving on to votes in the two branches. But the two chairs of that committee – Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington and Rep. Dan Cullinane of Dorchester – are barely on speaking terms these days.

Cullinane says Friedman has refused to work with him to schedule votes on all but a few bills since he took over as acting chair of the committee early this year. He said he is leaving the Legislature at the end of this session and has no political agenda other than moving forward good public policy.

“Plain and simple, the Senate chair refuses to negotiate, refuses to engage in any meaningful conversation,” he said. “The Senate did not walk away from the negotiating table, they never showed up.”

A similar dustup occurred in 2015, when then-Senate President Stan Rosenberg complained that too many of the Senate’s bills ended up stalled in joint House-Senate committees which tend to be dominated by members of the larger House. The tension became so high that the Senate voted 39-0 to develop plans to pull members out of the joint committees and establish its own panels, an approach that came to be known as the “nuclear option.” House Speaker Robert DeLeo at the time was dismissive of the Senate’s push for change, calling it an “impolitic and manufactured reaction to a non-existent problem.”

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, some minor changes in joint rules were approved, and the two branches went back to doing business. But a new battle over the same issue seems to be emerging again with the Health Care Financing Committee.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a major health care bill backed by Friedman and Senate President Karen Spilka. The bill did not go through the joint committee, but instead originated in another joint committee and then modified in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which Cullinane says is a violation of the Legislature’s rules. He said the Senate has bypassed the joint committee and passed other health care measures in recent months. [CORRECTION: The original version of this story said the health care bill originated in the senate Ways and Means Committee; it actually originated in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.]

“Such unusual action by the Senate would be concerning at any time. But in a time when our Commonwealth must navigate the dual challenges of the worst global pandemic in over a century and a historic recession, the Senate’s choice to bypass the expertise of the members of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing is an unconscionable political decision that has disenfranchised both the House and Senate members appointed to the joint committee and their constituents,” Cullinane said in a letter filed with the House clerk prior to the Senate’s vote.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Friedman also urged the rejection of a House measure that would have extended until the end of the year the reporting date for the more than 300 bills remaining in the Health Care Financing Committee. Cullinane said he filed the extension because he didn’t want to see the bills die, but Friedman indicated on the Senate floor that she was more concerned with Senate bills returning to the Senate for action. [CLARIFICATION: The original wording of this sentence mischaracterized Friedman’s attitude; she said in an interview that she cares very much about passing legislation, which is why she is trying to pry bills out of committee so they can get action in the Senate.]

According to a transcript of the floor debate compiled by the State House News Service, Friedman said the bills in the committee fall into three buckets – House bills, Senate bills, and bills filed in both branches that deal with the same issues. Friedman said negotiations had broken down in the committee over the bills dealing with overlapping issues so she wanted the committee to release the Senate bills to the Senate. She said the House members could do whatever they wanted with the House bills.

Cullinane says Friedman’s approach subverts the whole point of the committee, which is to have members and staff with an expertise in health care review all health care legislation.

The Senate voted to reject the extension sought by Cullinane, which meant all bills in the committee were released with adverse reports, meaning they would normally be dead. The Senate then began passing measures to resuscitate the Senate bills it wanted to consider.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“I have heard that there have been accusations that the Senate is being obstructionist, that there has been no outreach, and that we won’t negotiate,” Friedman said, according to State House News. “I am not sure how you reconcile five Senate proposals since January as being obstructionist. But here we are. It’s June 25. Our formals will end soon. Our health care system is upside down. Our residents depend on us to provide care. We can’t wait, they can’t wait. And so it’s time to move the bills along.”

To an outsider, it all sounds like much ado about nothing. After all, a Senate bill can’t become law unless the House goes along, so it’s not as if the two branches will never have to negotiate. But the Senate’s attempt to gain more control of its legislation is stirring anger in the House, anger that is likely to surface somewhere down the road.