Well, that’s one way to define a ‘captive audience’

Who says irony is dead? The House of Representatives began debating “An Act Concerning Captive Audience Meetings” at 2:08 p.m. Wednesday, only to be held captive by a Republican filibuster until 1:07 a.m. today. The bill passed, 78 to 65.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the GOP talkfest was the result of Democrats breaking a deal that allowed the bill out of the Labor and Public Employees Committee without a fight at the approach of the committee’s deadline on March 15.

“We cut the deal. They went back on it,” Cafero said.

Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Southington, the co-chairman of the committee, said if Cafero thought he had a deal, he misunderstood. Zalaski acknowledged telling Cafero in March that he just wanted to get the bill out of committee, but he never promised that the bill would not come to a vote in the House.

Because the Labor committee did not take up the bill until its deadline, the Republicans could have easily killed the measure by delaying a vote until 5 p.m. that day. Republicans oppose the bill as anti-business and an affront to free speech.

The bill prohibits employers from requiring employees to attend meetings “the primary purpose of which is to communicate the employer’s opinion concerning religious or political matters.”

Democrats say the bill is intended to protect employees against intimidation and abuse by employers.

But the filibuster–a reaction to a perceived violation of the unwritten rules of the legislature–overshadowed the content of the legislation, which was backed by organized labor.

The only weapon the Republican minority often has is to talk at length. Cafero said he was happy to demonstrate that his 52-member caucus is willing to talk all day and night to register its displeasure over, in his view, being fooled into giving Zalaski a victory in committee.

Further aggravating the minority, the Democrats objected to Republican amendments as being not germane to the bill, prompting two procedural votes. The deeper the GOP dug in on principle, the more determined the Democrats became.

“It comes down to we have the votes, and we’ll stay all night if we have to,” Zalaski said. “I’d be happy to be a part of it.”

The bill passed after 10 hours and 59 minutes of debate, 78 to 65. Fourteen Democrats joined the 51 Republicans still present at the end to vote no.

“When you fight for workers, sometimes it’s tough,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden. “I don’t know that any unwritten rules were broken. The Republicans didn’t like the bill. We had the votes to do it. We were willing to stay here as we needed.”

As the debate continued past midnight, Democrats did not rule out beginning debate on another controversial bill — a measure to allow all Connecticut students to qualify for the in-state tuition rate, regardless of immigration status — just to signal their displeasure.

It would have kept them in session past dawn.

“They taught us a lesson,” Zalaski said. “Now we have to teach them a lesson.”

But the House adjourned until noon with the understanding that the Republicans will not filibuster the tuition bill into the night.