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updated: 1/6/2013 8:53 PM

Cullerton: Gay marriage, gun debates not a 'waste'

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Highly touted but abruptly halted action in the Illinois Senate last week set the tone for a roller coaster lame-duck legislative session of escalating hopes, discouraging dips and resurgent optimism continuing Sunday.

But Senate President John Cullerton said a focus on the prominent but risky issues of gay marriage and gun control wasn't a waste of time, even though supporters hoped they would win Senate support and move to the House.

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Why couldn't Senate Democrats -- who are on the verge of becoming more powerful, perhaps, than at any time in Illinois history -- push through progressive legislation in a lame-duck session, when departing lawmakers feel free to vote as they please?

"Passing gay marriage and passing major gun control bills is always going to be very, very tough," Cullerton said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.

In the 2011 session, lawmakers increased the income tax and abolished the death penalty, drawing criticism for using lame ducks to make momentous changes, and "when we pass routine legislation, we get criticized for not passing major legislation," Cullerton said.

Facing defeat, Cullerton abruptly adjourned Thursday and canceled Friday's meeting.

That was an embarrassment for Democrats, said Sen. David Luechtefeld, an assistant Republican leader from Okawville.

"Obviously, it turned out to be a waste of time," Luechtefeld said. "We have a budget problem, we have a nearly unsolvable pension problem, and they take up these extremely controversial issues."

The issues aren't dead; Democrats merely pulled them back for further work after hearing GOP opposition, Cullerton said.

"It's a matter of pleasing people enough to get enough votes," the Chicago Democrat said.

And Cullerton said the Senate didn't ignore the $96 billion public-employee pension deficit, calling it "mind-numbing" that people forget the Senate adopted a limited reform bill that he thinks can serve as a model for expansion.

Cullerton was coming off the biggest election in Senate Democrats' history, winning five seats in November to take the majority to an unprecedented 40 votes versus Republicans' 19.

New power, national momentum in favor of gay marriage, and public encouragement from President Barack Obama convinced supporters the time was right. But legislation stalled after a committee sent it to the floor, not because of in attention to legislative language or too great a focus on counting votes, Cullerton maintained.

"Did we waste time by doing this exercise? Absolutely not," he said. Committee hearings "flushed out the opposition" on where Democrats could improve the bills.

"It's not an admission we did something wrong," Cullerton said. "When they raise issues, we say, ' OK, we'll make this clear, maybe that would help you?' And they say, 'Sure.'"

But it didn't get a floor vote because the sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, said because three senators holding key "yes" votes weren't attending.

That surprised one of the missing -- retiring Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat who said his absence was well-known before nose-counting began.

Schoenberg's family spent most of the last two weeks in Jerusalem for a son's bar mitzvah. Back in the country Sunday, he told the AP he has also already resigned, effective today, to give his replacement, current Rep. Daniel Biss, a jump on the Legislature that's sworn in on Wednesday.

"It was no surprise that I wasn't going to be there for a few days when the calendar changed," Schoenberg said. Cullerton had originally scheduled the Senate to be in session Jan. 2 to Jan. 9, so Schoenberg planned to be back by this weekend in case his vote was needed.

Steans did not return a call seeking comment.

The Senate will return if the House cobbles together a pension reform bill -- one is scheduled for committee action today.

Said Cullerton, "We are open for business."

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