No end in sight for Tennessee special session stalemate

AP Photo/John Amis

We’re now officially in Week Two of the special session called by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in response to the Covenant School shooting in Nashville back in April, and the impasse between the state House and Senate threatens to drag on for the foreseeable future.


On Monday, Lee told reporters that there’s still “work to be done,” but offered no details about what his office is doing to end the legislative impasse. The state Senate approved four pieces of legislation suggested by Lee’s office in the first few days of the special session, but the House has continued to work on dozens of other bills, even though it’s unclear if the Senate will even consider any additional legislation approved by their counterparts.

Anyone hoping that the weekend break would give lawmakers time to reset and get on the same page had their hopes dashed with this response from state Senator Jack Johnson to a post on X (formerly Twitter) from Axios reporter Nate Rau.

The barbeque referenced by Rau was Johnson’s own fundraising event called Boots & Jeans, BBQ & Beans. U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn and former collegiate swimmer-turned-activist Riley Gaines were supposed to headline the fundraiser, which has now been postponed indefinitely. Johnson’s decision to push his fundraiser to some point in the future is a strong sign that the special session won’t wrap up this week but could be extended to a third week of debate and deliberation.


In an update to members on Monday morning, Tennessee Firearms Association executive director John Harris expressed his frustration with the session, noting that the pace of the session “makes it practically impossible for citizens and advocates to keep tabs on what is happening,” denying voters and constituents the chance to weigh in on the bills up for consideration. Harris is also concerned that some lawmakers may have legislative tricks up their sleeve that could lead to last-minute amendments and changes that would gut the original intent of bills.

Speaking of such shenanigans, consider SB7088 (Sen. Jack Johnson) and its companion HB7041 (Rep. William Lamberth). While this never should have been a topic in an “extraordinary occasion” special session as broad as what Governor Lee demanded, the bill does address an important issue that is more appropriately considered in the regular session. The bill addresses human trafficking (which as everyone knows was relevant to the Covenant murders right?).

The legislature’s description of the bill appears insignificant. It states “As introduced, requires the [Tennessee] bureau [of Investigation] to submit a report on child and human trafficking crimes and trends in this state, based upon data available to the bureau, as well as current programs and activities of the bureau’s human trafficking unit, to the governor, the speaker of the house of representatives, and the speaker of the senate by December 1, 2023, and by each December 1 thereafter.” So, the bill as filed does nothing more than require that the TBI prepare and distribute a report by December 1 of each year. As an aside, the bill only required TBI to provide that report to the Governor, the Speaker and the Lt. Governor – there is no requirement that TBI include that report on the state’s website so that the interested public might also be informed.

The Senate passed the Senate version of the bill on August 23, 2023, with 26 voting yes, 0 voting no and 5 who were present but did not vote at all. The Senate passed the bill as written.

But something curious happened after the Senate passed the bill. On the House side, Rep. William Lamberth announced during the floor debate on August 24, 2023, that he was working on an amendment. That amendment appears to change the legislation by providing that the TBI will only send the annual report to the Speaker of the House. The amendment omits the requirement that a copy of the report to the Governor or the Lt. Governor. What is going on here? Is it truly the objective of Rep. Lamberth to exclude the report from being sent to the Governor and the Lt. Governor?

Is the proposed amendment that is presently filed the actual amendment that Rep. Lamberth intends or is it potentially a misdirection while yet another amendment is prepared and sprung on the citizens?

As a guest on the Tennessee Star Radio show on Monday, August 28, host Michael Patrick Leahy put that question to in-studio guest Rep. Gino Bulso. Rep. Bulso gave a plausible speculation as to why Rep. Lamberth would announce an amendment to a bill the Senate has already passed and which the Senate has clearly indicated is its final vote on that matter. Rep. Bulso stated that one possibility might be that Rep. Lamberth was wanting to create a scenario where the House and Senate would enact different versions of the bill and thereby force the bill to a “conference committee” where a small number of legislators from both houses negotiate, or try to do so, on a “take it or leave it” compromise bill that each house would then vote on without more amendments.


As Harris says, it’s pretty clear that the Lamberth amendment isn’t intended to be the final version of the proposed law, but we have no idea what he ultimately wants that bill to look like.

Even before the session got underway the secret meetings and lack of transparency on the part of lawmakers and Lee’s office was troubling enough, but I really don’t understand the endgame on the part of the Tennessee House and leaders like Lamberth, who are needlessly dragging out the session and giving anti-gun activists a daily stage to pontificate about gun control and point their fingers at legislators for “doing nothing”. Whatever the House manages to pass won’t be nearly enough for Democrats and their media allies, while keeping the session going is just ticking off the GOP’s conservative base. More than anything this looks like a political pissing contest between House and Senate leadership, and I doubt there are going to be any real winners when this session finally draws to a close.

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