When the red card is clipped to the board, not much happens in the House. CT Mirror
When the red card is clipped to the board, not much happens in the House.
When the red card is clipped to the board, not much happens in the House. CT Mirror

As the Connecticut General Assembly trudges towards its adjournment deadline of midnight Wednesday, the fate of dozens of bills relies on whether House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R- Norwalk, chooses to display a square red card at his desk in the House of Representatives.

Red means stop. The card is a signal to his caucus to stretch out debates with observations, comments and questions. Earlier this week, he kept a debate going for eight hours. Talking is a potent weapon late in the session, a way to take time off the clock, a means to nudge House Democrats to run a GOP bill or the Senate to move a House bill.

On Friday evening, Cafero was building toward a state of agitation that signaled trouble for any lobbyist with a bill stuck on the House calendar. The Senate had not come into session until 5 p.m., and that annoyed Cafero. An hour later, it had taken up only Senate bills, and that angered him.

He saw House bills withering on the Senate calendar like unpicked fruit. The legislature began the day with a lopsided score: The House had passed 28 Senate bills, while only 11 House bills had cleared the Senate.

“Go red,” Cafero said to Rep. Themis Klarides, his deputy minority leader. She clipped a red card to a small dry erase board that sits in narrow space between her desk and Cafero’s. “Guys, red,” Cafero said to his troops. “Where are my talkers?”

About 15 minutes later, the Senate took up a House bill, and the governor’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, was visiting Cafero in his office across the hall from the House. The red card was sitting on his desk, ready to be played again when the time was right.

The final days of every annual session are a series of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, the House and Senate, and legislators and the office of the governor. As time grows short, the negotiations about selecting bills for a vote seldom are subtle.

The 36-member Senate, with a long tradition of using consent calendars to pass noncontroversial bills en masse, can move a dozen bills in an hour. Things take longer in the 151-member House.

Intra-party disputes between the House and Senate can stall business as easily as partisan disagreements. Last year, when the Senate balked at a bill legalizing Sunday bow hunting of deer on private property, side deals instantly dissolved, killing an early-childhood education measure.

Tensions between Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, spilled out into public view three weeks ago. The Senate passed Williams’ bill banning the sale and use of genetically engineered grass seed, a proposal that Sharkey saw as premature. The product is not yet commercially available.

Sen. Donald E. Williams and Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey.
Sen. Donald E. Williams and Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey. CT MIrror

Sharkey responded by calling the bill for a quick vote and killing it on a resounding 103-37 vote. It was the legislative equivalent of dunking a basketball in an opponent’s face, and then some. Only half-jokingly, lobbyists declared the session effectively over.

But Williams and Sharkey resumed talks, and they stood chatting in a third-floor hallway after joining Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at a press conference on the budget Friday. A reporter asked if they had worked out what would live and die over the last three days.

“We’ve been communicating on all the big issues and working hard behind the scenes,” Williams said.

“And all the legislators will live,” Sharkey said.

The two men laughed.

Williams was told that the House had passed a new version of Sunday bow hunting, a measure he killed last year. He smiled and said, “A little levity there.”

Sharkey laughed.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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