Posted: Dec. 4, 2015
THE SENATE IS IN THE HOUSE
By Celia Cohen
There was no misprint. The state Senate really did mean to announce it would be meeting in the state House of Representatives.
Not for long and not by choice, but there the senators were, assembling for a special session Monday afternoon in Dover, on the other side of Legislative Hall from their own in the House chamber, because theirs was under construction.
It had nothing to do with the fire that came close to burning down the building in October. It was what had to happen when planned renovation work trumped an unplanned special session.
The Senate had to meet primarily to consider the confirmation of Natalie Haskins as a Family Court judge to replace Alan Cooper, who died in October, and it could not wait until the customary legislative return in January because of constitutional deadlines.
The oddity of the meeting place turned what was otherwise ordinary business into an occasion.
"I'd like to recognize the unique and historic situation as to the special session of the Senate being conducted in the chamber of the House of Representatives. I don't believe this has been done before," said Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem.
The Senate does periodically get to the House -- and vice versa -- for joint sessions, notably for the governor's State of the State address, but not by itself.
Some senators easily made themselves at home in the House. They had been there before.
Bruce Ennis and Bethany Hall-Long from the Democratic side of the aisle and Cathy Cloutier, Gerald Hocker and Greg Lavelle from the Republican side were all once representatives. So was Dave McBride, the Democratic majority leader, but he was absent for medical reasons.
Lavelle, the Senate minority whip who used to be the House minority leader, found himself missing Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker who was his old sparring partner.
"I need Schwartzkopf to yell at," Lavelle quipped.
The Senate was not actually sure it was allowed procedurally to meet in the House, so it carefully moved to suspend all rules that could interfere with its actions before it took any official votes.
Blevins credited Bernard Brady, the secretary of the Senate, and Rich Puffer, the clerk of the House, with figuring out the protocol for a session that wound up lasting all of about 17 minutes.
"This was not as easy as it looks," Blevins said.
The Senate met outside its own chamber only one other time since Legislative Hall was completed in 1933 as a project that meant much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. It replaced the Old State House, which still stands on The Green in Dover since the early days of statehood, the only other home the Delaware General Assembly has had.
The Senate previously was off-site in December 1996 for a special session, also due to renovation work and a pressing judicial nomination. It went to the old Kent County Courthouse on The Green.
There are senators who participated in both relocations, namely, Blevins, Margaret Henry, Bob Marshall, Harris McDowell and Dave Sokola for the Democrats and Colin Bonini for the Republicans. McBride's absence Monday prevented him from joining them.
Brady, the Senate secretary, and Dick Carter, a Democratic aide, also were there for both. So was Nancy Cook, who was a Democratic senator from 1974 until 2010 when she lost her seat, but she still does come to session, anyway.
For the other time in 1996, the history-making nature of the event inspired the Senate to bring in reproductions of Colonial-era desks and chairs as its furniture for the day.
Bonini remembers it all too clearly. As political physiques go, Bonini is more William Howard Taft than Abraham Lincoln, and he recalls worrying whether his chair could hold him. It did.
The state constitution requires the legislature to meet in Dover -- except in the case of "insurrection, conflagration or epidemic disease" -- but it does not specify where.
It means the Senate could override any of its own procedural rules that might have kept it tethered to its chamber, but it could not override the constitution. It could go, but it could not go far.