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Power plays bring delay

Frustrated by Republicans' measure to revive school vouchers, Democrats strike back with a delay tactic. And amid the partisan politics, a friendship struggles.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published May 4, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - For years, Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, and Senate Minority Leader Les Miller, D-Tampa, have showered each other with compliments. In speeches on the chamber floor and in private they have professed a mutual respect and admiration for one another.

That stopped Wednesday.

Democrats arrived at the chamber in the morning, still fuming over a GOP power play that Lee had orchestrated the night before. Using a procedural maneuver, the Republican-controlled Senate revived a controversial plan to ask voters to allow private school vouchers, even though it had died by a single vote the day before.

Frustrated Democrats fought back using the state Constitution. They insisted upon enforcing a seldom-used right to have each bill considered by the Senate read out loud. Every single word. It took nearly 45 minutes to read a 27-page bill on trust funds.

"That's probably the biggest blow-up we've had since I've been in this Senate," said Miller, who hopes to stay friends after leaving Tallahassee.

But not enough to drop the threat of staging another read-aloud today. "We had to do what we had to do," Miller said.

As a reading clerk droned on, Lee ordered lawmakers not to leave their seats. Someone passed around a mock "pee pee" hall pass granting permission to use the bathroom. Eventually, Democrats called a cease-fire after halting work for more than an hour. The Senate resumed its schedule by about lunchtime.

The political showdown has placed Lee and Miller in an awkward situation. Both represent Hillsborough County in the Senate and are friends. Plus, with both running for higher office in an election year, their leadership of warring parties carries higher stakes than usual.

"Their goal this morning was to frustrate the process. They were successful, for a while," said Lee, noting that he wouldn't take Miller's role in the "procedural shenanigans" personally.

The two lawmakers come from different worlds in Tampa Bay. Lee represents the Brandon suburbs where he grew up. Miller's Senate district and lifelong home includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The friendship developed in Tallahassee. Although Lee leads the Republican majority, he went out of his way to help Miller, the first African-American to lead the minority party in the House and Senate.

"We're from different sides of the aisle, different walks of life, different parts of Hillsborough County," Miller said of Lee this spring. "But he's a friend, a statesman and a good leader."

Soon after joining the Senate in 2000, Miller sought Lee's help during budget negotiations. One of Miller's local projects wasn't getting funded. A rising Republican leader, Lee took the money from one of his own projects in east Hillsborough.

This year, on the opening day of the legislative session, Lee paused to single out Miller. He spoke of his admiration for how Miller has handled personally trying times.

Last year, Miller had surgery for a cancerous growth on his kidney. As he braced for the operation, Miller told senators that he "thought about Lee's voice saying, 'You're going to be okay,' and the friendship he showed me at that time."

Lee loaned Miller a Blackberry to stay in touch with him and the state capital.

To Lee, facing down the disease marked another example of Miller's "classy" conduct. He displayed the same attitude when his wife, Tampa City Council member Gwen Miller, and daughter each battled breast cancer.

Miller's son was wounded by gunshots to the chest and leg a few years ago. "Time and time again, you persevered, came back and overcame," Lee told Miller, speaking before a packed chamber. "You are an inspiration."

Now Miller is running for the congressional seat that Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, is vacating. Lee is a statewide candidate for chief financial officer. Both face primaries in September.

Just last week, Miller noted proudly that their friendship has withstood political differences over the years.

"We only had a few bumps in the road, and it wasn't that big, because of the friendship that we carried," Miller told the Senate. "When I leave this process, I hope that you will still be my friend. I love you."

He still hopes so. So does Lee, who on Wednesday evening added a caveat: "Friendships are two-way streets."

- Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

AT A GLANCE

The budget: Approve a $71-billion spending plan for 2006-07. The vote is scheduled for Friday.

Insurance: Shore up the insurer of last resort, Citizens Property, with a cash infusion and adjust state law to attract private companies to Florida. No final bill has been written.

Schools: Finalize plans to reform middle and high school class requirements; limit how early the school year can start.

Vouchers: Expand a program paid for with corporate contributions; possibly reconsider a defeated constitutional amendment permitting a new program.

ON THE WEB

Read more about the Senate's rough day at blogs.tampabay.com. Click on The Buzz.

[Last modified May 4, 2006, 06:03:17]


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