The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-1 on Friday to send the controversial “death with dignity” bill to the Senate floor early next week, despite the panel’s disapproval of the legislation.
It’s an unusual move, but Senate President John Campbell, D-Quechee, has said in recent weeks that whatever the Judiciary Committee decides, the bill will be debated on the floor, thanks to pressure from his Democratic caucus.
As expected, the Judiciary Committee voted against the bill. Committee Chairman Dick Sears, a Bennington Democrat, is firmly opposed to the bill, as he has been for years.
Although Sears has a whole raft of problems with the bill, which he called “poorly drafted” and full of items which are “just plain wrong,” his biggest objection stems from the “absolute rejection of this by the [Vermont] Medical Society and most of the doctors that I represent in Bennington County.”
“What I’ve heard loud and clear is: ‘Don’t put me in this position” from my docs [doctors],” said Sears after the vote. He added that objections from the disability community also worry him.
Sears called Campbell’s decision to force a full debate unusual but fair.
“My preference would be to follow the committee process; if the bill doesn’t have the votes, it doesn’t get out. But on this particular issue, enough people felt that it deserved the vote of the Senate,” said Sears.
According to Senate Secretary John Bloomer, the last time a similar exception happened was in 2010, on a bill related to Vermont Yankee, coming out of the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican from Lyndonville and the party’s minority leader in the Senate, voted against the bill in committee, but said that Senate Republicans do not have a unified position on the bill, which opponent brand as “physician assisted suicide.” He said they will vote according to their consciences, without party pressure to vote for or against.
Sen. Tim Ashe, a Burlington Democrat, was the lone voice for the legislation in the Judiciary Committee. But Ashe also wants to amend the bill, to make it clear that whoever signs the patient’s death certificate must list the cause of death as a terminal illness or natural causes, rather than the lethal medication allowed to patients if the bill passes.
Ashe, who’s drafted several substantive amendments, wants his detailed changes to be considered, and fears that the bill might run afoul of a tight schedule, given the insistence with which senators are requesting a floor vote soon.
“I just hope that we, next week, don’t become a slave to a schedule, in a manner that is inconsistent with taking up the issues,” said Ashe in committee.
“I think we all agree that when we’re talking about life and death, the details matter, and the concept isn’t the only part of the equation,” he said earlier in the meeting.
Sears dismissed the thought that the bill is now being rushed through the legislative process, but added: “We’ll see if it’s going to get rushed through next week. If we don’t have time to make amendments and properly consider those amendments, then I’d say it was being rushed.”
The bill will be heard on the Senate floor on Tuesday morning, a date specially picked to ensure that all senators can attend and vote. The first order of the day will be to approve or reject the Judiciary’s Committee rejection of the bill, which would be the first formal indicator of the overall Senate’s sentiment on the bill.
“I think it’s a very close vote,” added Sears after the meeting. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think both sides have probably 12 or 13 solid votes, either yes or no. I think there’s four or five senators who are really undecided.”