Republican lawmakers convened the state's first-ever veto session Tuesday with high hopes for overriding Gov. John Bel Edwards' vetoes of key bills, the culmination of a months-long power struggle between the Democratic governor and heavily-Republican Legislature.

Follow day two of the veto override session live by clicking here

At the end of the first day, which was rife with protests and emotional debate, the Senate had agreed to override Edwards' veto of a bill targeting transgender athletes, but rejected attempts to bypass the governor on several other bills.

Among those that failed was the other main bill targeted by legislative leaders for an override attempt: A proposal to allow for concealed carry of guns without a permit.

The action now shifts to the state House, where Republican leaders will try to get enough Democrats to vote with them to turn the transgender bill into law through a veto override process that is extremely rare in Louisiana history.

The action in the Senate Tuesday raised questions about whether the chamber has the appetite for overriding any bills besides Senate Bill 156, which bans transgender girls and women, who were born male, from competing in girl’s and women’s sports. And the political dynamics in the House are making for an exceedingly close vote, with Republicans facing a slim margin.

Senators voted 26-12 to override the governor’s veto of the transgender bill, garnering the exact number needed on a strictly party-line vote. Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, urged members not to vote based on a “stick” or “carrot” – apparently alluding to an intense lobbying effort put on by Edwards and many in the business community – but instead based on their conscience.

“If you have not heard the voices of the large majority of people in this state by emails, by phone calls, by personal visits, there’s no words I can give you,” Mizell said, as dozens of onlookers packed into the chamber watched the proceedings.

The debate over Mizell’s bill and the gun measure by Republican Sen. Jay Morris, of Monroe, stirred passions at the State Capitol, where half a dozen transgender advocates were forcibly removed from the House balcony after unfurling a banner in protest of the bill. Sen. Patrick Connick, a Marrero Republican and key swing vote on the override attempts, read hate mail he received on the gun bill and delivered an emotional rebuke of what he said was divisiveness in the veto session.

Just before the historic veto session began, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, cracked down on press access in the House, announcing he would kick two of the four reporters off the House floor and relegate other reporters who usually work along the side of the chamber to the balcony. The Legislature is expected to spend at least tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on the veto session.

Schexnayder, who recently admitted he does not like the media, claimed the move was made as a COVID precaution. Schexnayder has refused to require masks during the entire pandemic and even led the charge to eliminate all of Edwards’ pandemic restrictions last year, which failed.

The Louisiana Legislature has overrode governors’ vetoes before, but this is the first time lawmakers are calling a session solely to override vetoes.

Connick was one of three Republicans to switch his vote on the gun bill and refuse to override it, along with Sens. Louie Bernard, of Natchitoches, and Franklin Foil, of Baton Rouge. Bernard pointed to opposition from law enforcement; a host of sheriffs have come out against the bill, saying it would make communities less safe. 

Still, Connick voted with the Republicans on the transgender bill, sending it to the House where a vote could happen as early as Wednesday.

But Connick said the veto on the transgender bill was the only one he would vote to override, dimming the prospects for overrides on any other bills. The Senate rejected several other override attempts Tuesday, but the House has a long list of bills that could be overrode if both chambers agree.

Connick, a Republican who comes from a storied political family, is a crucial vote because Republican Sen. Ronnie Johns, of Lake Charles, is not attending the session for health reasons. That means if any Republican votes against an override, a Democrat would have to cross the aisle to vote to override Edwards, who is the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

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Democrats in the Senate echoed several business leaders who penned a letter Tuesday warning lawmakers that by turning the transgender bill into law, they risk losing out on business opportunities. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, noted the NCAA has cautioned states they could lose out on big events--like the Final Four slated for New Orleans next year--if they pass such legislation.

Peterson said lawmakers must decide whether they want businesses to come to Louisiana or whether they “want to discriminate.”

“The governor did the right thing to protect the people of Louisiana from discrimination and to protect the Louisiana economy,” Peterson said.

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association, which governs high school sports, already makes it virtually impossible for transgender teens to compete in sports that match their gender identity through its rules. Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, said the association already sets “high hurdles” for such athletes, and called the bill a “solution in search of a problem.”

But Republicans rejected those arguments. Mizell said the threats that the NCAA might pull the Final Four from the state were tantamount to “extortion,” and noted the LHSAA voiced support for her bill.

After the vote, the focus immediately shifted to the House, which can make the transgender bill law by getting a two-thirds approval – 70 votes – to override the governor’s veto.

But the math is difficult in the lower chamber.

Only 69 House members voted to come into a veto override session to begin with, including one Democrat, Rep. Francis Thompson, of Delhi, and one no-party representative, Rep. Roy Daryl Adams, of Jackson.

The other two no-party members will not attend the session for the rest of the week. That means Republicans need at least two Democrats to side with them to turn the transgender bill into law. The bill got 78 votes in the House during the regular session, but Democrats are far more wary to vote to override the governor, which last happened in 1993, when Edwin Edwards was governor. The only other veto override on record was in 1991 over abortion. Both overrides took place while the Legislature was still session. 

Edwards has put on a full-court press to block a veto override, dispatching top aides to lobby lawmakers on the effort.

One Democrat who may be in play is Rep. C. Travis Johnson, of Vidalia, who is a co-sponsor of the transgender sports bill. Shortly after the vote in the Senate Tuesday, a throng of Democratic Senators gathered to talk to Johnson on the Senate floor.

Rep. Sam Jenkins, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday morning he doesn’t expect any of the governor’s vetoes to be overrode.

Jenkins also said the vote to override Edwards is much different from the original vote on the issue.

That idea held true in the Senate Tuesday. The Democrats voted as a bloc against the overrides of the gun and transgender bills, even though several voted for the bills during the regular legislative session.

Schexnayder said Monday he's "100% comfortable" the House will have the votes to override Edwards' veto of the transgender sports bill. 

Rep. Blake Miguez, head of the House Republican delegation, said the override effort is a “very heavy lift” in a morning radio interview.

“If the Legislature wants to be successful in these overrides it will take the participation from independents and Democrats,” he said. “If the legislators stay consistent and vote the same as they will during the session we’ll have a lot of overrides. Unfortunately the governor has been working these bills very hard.”

Exactly what House bills may see an override attempt is unclear. Some rank-and-file Republicans, including House Conservative Caucus Chair Jack McFarland, want to make a run at some of Edwards’ line-item vetoes on budget bills. The governor stripped out several funding earmarks for legislators' projects through his power to veto specific lines of budget bills. But it’s not clear if House leaders will bring those bills for a vote.

The House, which did little but read the vetoed measures into the record,  reconvenes Wednesday at 1 p.m. The Senate comes in at 4 p.m.

Will Sentell of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report

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