Posted: April 4, 2013


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If the death penalty in Delaware is to be repealed, it will have to get through not one, but two, precarious votes in the House of Representatives.

Not only are the votes uncertain for passage, it is also unclear whether the votes are there even to bring it out of committee.

Not that anything but a close call should be expected. It is already the nature of the debate.

The bill that would repeal the death penalty barely made it out of the Senate last week to get to the House. The vote on the legislation, Senate Bill 19, was a thin 11-10.

"This is one of those bills that is passionate on both sides," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker of the House.

The General Assembly has been gripped by a lot of high-intensity debates this session, not just on capital punishment, but on guns, gay marriage, taxes and a minimum wage hike, but the death penalty seems to be the most intense of all.

The debate cooled somewhat when Karen Peterson, the Democratic senator who is the prime sponsor of the repeal bill, amended it to allow the 17 inmates currently on death row to be executed.

Even so, the bill is highly charged. It is the reason so much is riding on committee vote. If the bill gets stuck in the Judiciary Committee, then the full House can duck it and spare the members from the heat.

"A lot of people want it held in committee so they don't have to vote on it. Other people think it deserves a vote on the floor," Schwartzkopf said.

"The gun bills and the death penalty bill will have the effect of unseating some people."

The action is on hold for now, because the General Assembly is taking its two-week spring break. It goes back to work on Tuesday, April 16. In the meantime, the scramble for votes is continuing away from Legislative Hall.

Vote counters on both sides agree the 11-member Judiciary Committee is split with six of them against repeal and five of them for it, enough to bottle up the bill. The key is whether any of the members opposed to repeal can be persuaded to let it out so the full House can have its say.

One drawback for the repeal is it lacks a high-profile champion, as compared to, say, same-sex marriage, which has the governor, the whole congressional delegation and the attorney general backing it.

By contrast, repeal has a high-profile opponent, namely Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general. Also Schwartzkopf. Very little happens in the House without going through the speaker, although in this case he has committed to letting the debate take its course, come what may.

"I'm not going to give any direction whatsoever," Schwartzkopf said.

The roll call for a full House vote is a work in progress. Neither side has enough votes locked in.

"It will be a close vote in the House, but we'll get it done," said Peterson, the Senate sponsor.

That is, if there is a vote in the House. Still, it should not be overlooked there is a way to end-run the Judiciary Committee if it votes against letting the bill out. Under the House rules, a majority vote by the full chamber can bring legislation out of committee and onto the floor.

The rule is rarely invoked and considerably fraught. If anything could make the death penalty bill even more intense, that would be it.