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BOISE — Just 15 of the 70 members of the Idaho House gathered in their chamber on Wednesday, in what some far-right legislators billed as an attempt to gather enough lawmakers to convene the House to oppose vaccine mandates.

“My people are losing their jobs,” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, told the small group of House Republicans. “I’ve just got all kinds of things happening up north where you wouldn’t expect it. I’ve got elderly people that are at home who are in pain and they won’t take them in the hospital.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said he wanted to attempt a call of the House, a formal parliamentary maneuver, “if we had somewhere close to a quorum … but we didn’t have anywhere close to that.”

Even if they did, the House is currently in recess at the call of the speaker, so it would be up to Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to reconvene lawmakers, not to a small group of House members.

“That’s outside of our process,” Bedke said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re all frustrated. But that doesn’t justify taking shortcuts with our time-honored process.”

Bedke said, “I tried to jump-start that a little bit to try to get some consensus. That was not reached.”

Over the past week and a half, Bedke has told anxious House members that in order to reconvene the Legislature, whose regular session this year wrapped up in May after running for longer than any other session in state history, there would have to be proposed legislation with wide support among a majority of the members of both the House and the Senate.

“I put it out there,” Bedke said. “I do not think it is a proper use of taxpayer dollars for 105 of us to sit around and watch a committee work.”

Bedke said he strongly opposes President Biden’s newly announced COVID-19 vaccine requirements, which would affect up to 100 million Americans. Among them are plans for employers of 100 or more workers to require either vaccination or weekly testing. He said the next step is for the Legislature’s joint committee on federalism to meet to consider the issue; it’s planning to meet Sept. 28.

“I think we need to explore every option, every avenue,” Bedke said. “We need to coordinate with other states, to make sure we have an effective response. That doesn’t happen in a knee-jerk way.”

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, co-chair of the federalism committee, was in the House chamber as the far-right legislators gathered, but stayed off to the side in his usual House seat. “I’m just going to be back here listening,” Dixon said. “Just playing the role of observer.”

Twelve GOP House members and one senator, Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, gathered on the Statehouse steps for a rally against vaccine mandates, then 11 of them, minus Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, headed into the House chambers. There, they were joined by four other House members, including Dixon, who said he was interested to “see what the proposals are.”

Several of them took turns speaking to the group, presenting their ideas for proposed new laws against vaccine mandates or on related issues. They ranged from one from Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, to revive a tougher version of her failed HB 63, a personal bill that sought to forbid all vaccine requirements, including during emergencies; to a proposal from Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, to define vaccine requirements as assault. “The penalties for assault are already in statute,” Nate said.

Nichols also outlined a proposal to forbid anyone from having to reveal “personal medical information” such as vaccine status. “No one could ask you for that information, to attend an event or for any other reason,” she said.

No House Democrats attended Wednesday’s gathering. “It’s unfortunate that this pandemic has been politicized,” said House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise. “Those of us who believe in science and who see the devastation in our health care system and the thousands of lives lost have been encouraging Idahoans to get vaccinated for nine months. It’s not been enough, and our health care system is buckling. We have to look at every way to encourage vaccines, because our hospitals are maxed out, which threatens everyone’s safety.”

As the GOP gathering wrapped up, Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said, “There were a lot of good ideas out there. I’m glad. They’re all coming from different angles.”

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, didn’t attend; he was at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in California. Crane said he had been working to get House members to sign on to a proposal from Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, responding to employee vaccine mandates at major Idaho hospitals, when Biden’s plan was announced on Thursday.

“Sen. (Lori) Den Hartog started shopping it on the Senate side,” Crane said. “We had been into that process probably about a week when the president made his announcement.”

“The game has changed a little bit,” Crane said. “It was a seismic shift that happened inside the caucus when the president did what he did last week. It was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got to do something here.’ So even more ideas began to come forward as to how to handle that.”

Crane said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the speaker organize committees to make proposals to the full Legislature.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, told the Associated Press on Monday that she wouldn’t be attending the Wednesday gathering at the Capitol. “They made it very clear it’s about grandstanding instead of getting something done,” she said. “And I want to get something done.”

Bedke said, “It’s one thing to protest and complain. It’s another to come up with a solution.”

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, shared an email response he sent Tuesday to a constituent who had asked if he’d be represented at what he thought was a session of the Legislature on Wednesday.

“Some legislators have said they’re then going to try to convene the House. That is a blatant lie,” Chaney wrote. “Some have even suggested that those who don’t show up to convene would only do so because of some sort of corruption. That is a bigger lie. Those of us that don’t show up 1) actually understand that legally there is no meeting, and 2) don’t believe it’s appropriate to be dishonest with the public about our processes and procedures merely to score political points.”

“These hucksters are doing something that has no lawful basis and they know they aren’t accomplishing anything. In fact, they’re making it harder to build consensus around legislation that might actually pass,” Chaney wrote.

He added, “So no, I won’t be at the statehouse tomorrow ‘trying to convene.’ I won’t be in Buckingham Palace, either, claiming to be the Queen of England; although, being in Boise ‘trying to convene’ would be no less ridiculous or without legal or procedural foundation than being in London attempting to coronate myself.”

Wednesday’s gathering followed an earlier unsuccessful attempt by a similar number of House Republicans to self-convene a special legislative session in June 2020 to oppose GOP Gov. Brad Little’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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