Special session plods on but “divisive” story is already written

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DENVER -- There was no suspense Monday night when the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted 5-4 along party lines to kill legislation that would have recognized same-sex civil unions.

Even with two days left in the special legislative session, it's all over, as they say, but the shoutin'.

While the controversial legislation is dead for the second time in less than a week, the public relations battle between Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty and Democrats -- most notably, Gov. John Hickenlooper, who called the special session and has become the GOP's main target -- is still in full swing,.

And, with a huge election now six months away, there's still a lot on the line.

Despite the Speaker's protestations over Hickenlooper's call for the special session, it's McNulty himself who's become the lightning rod.

When addressing the press on this issue this week, McNulty repeatedly said that the House GOP is trying to focus on the pocketbook issues that really matter to Coloradans.

But by digging in so deeply on civil unions, McNulty and House Republicans forced Coloradans to focus on the suspect legislative process around the bill, on what Democrats and the state's biggest newspaper are calling an egregious "abuse of power".

Ultimately, McNulty himself became more "divisive" than the social issue that was up for debate.

After shutting down debate and running out the clock on 30 bills last week in order to avoid a vote on civil unions that he knew would result in the bill's passage, McNulty really had no political choice but to do it again.

And, by sending the bill to his so-called "kill committee", he did it swiftly and avoided the embarrassing procedural fight the state saw last Tuesday on the House floor.

By then, however, it was too late.

Never mind that Hickenlooper called the special session knowing that there still was no clear path toward getting civil unions through the committee process again and introduced on the House floor.

McNulty, by using the nuclear option last week and killing 30 bills that also ran out of time, enabled Hickenlooper to argue that the work of the special session was about more than civil unions, that passing a bill that included $20 million in funding for local water conservation projects was equally important.

And McNulty's decision to direct his attacks at Hickenlooper, arguably the most popular governor in the country, is another risky political move that may energize the conservative base but is also likely to alienate swing voters heading into a critical election year.

Given that McNulty's House majority is a tenuous one-seat advantage, he could have shrugged off criticism from the far right had he allowed civil unions to come up for a vote and, inevitably, to pass.

And sources close to House GOP leadership tell FOX 31 Denver that McNulty, up until last Tuesday night, seemed as though he was resigned to that scenario, that he was planning to allow a vote on the House floor.

"He just got scared," that source said.

Scarier now may be McNulty's prospects of holding on to his majority in November, now that his handling of civil unions has alienated not just Democrats and Independents but Republicans too, splintering his own caucus, not to mention his donor base.

The influential editorial board of the Denver Post skewered McNulty Monday night, posting a scathing editorial immediately after the "kill committee"'s vote that accused the Speaker of showing "a complete disdain for honesty" and offering a "laughable explanation" for his actions.

More worrisome for McNulty are the fissures among conservatives.

Rep. David Balmer, in an email to constituents Monday prior to the start of the special session, reiterated his own personal opposition to civil unions but then blasted McNulty for "abrogating the House rules" by sending the civil unions bill to a different committee than those that heard, and passed, the measure during the closing weeks of the regular session.

But big GOP donors sent an even stronger message.

On Monday morning, as supporters of civil unions rallied on the Capitol's west steps, Dan Ritchie and Greg Stevinson, two reliable, deep-pocketed GOP donors, stood with them.

Sources have told FOX 31 that Stevinson, along with Charlie Gallagher, another big GOP donor, are so upset with McNulty's handling of the civil unions bill they may not donate to his GOP Majority fund this fall -- this as the Democrats' main money man, Tim Gill, who made a point of showing up for Monday's hearing in person, is likely to write even larger checks to help Democrats win back a House majority.

"This has just been a disaster for McNulty and House Republicans," said political analyst Eric Sondermann. "It's not only putting them on the wrong side of the political equation at the moment, but, I also think, it puts them on the wrong side of history.

"I think it's been handled from a political point of view in a completely ham-handed way. What they've done is turn this thing into a spectacle."

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