Following a chaotic day that witnessed a multi-hour standoff over the state capitol’s vaccine-or-test mandate, the Assembly held a brief voting session in relative normality this afternoon, passing a total of seven bills.
The capitol’s vaccine-or-test requirement, which went into effect yesterday, initially went unenforced, and Republican legislators entered the capitol annex with no issues this morning. But shortly afterwards, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-South Amboy) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) announced that legislators would be prevented from entering the chambers themselves unless they showed proof of vaccination or a negative test.
That policy led to a conflict between Republican assemblymembers and state troopers, who blocked a large gaggle of Republicans at the door just after 1 p.m,; eventually, the Republicans realized the troopers would not physically prevent them from entering, and pushed their way through.
For more than two hours thereafter, most of the Assembly Republican caucus huddled in the chamber, while Democratic members caucused elsewhere. At one point, Coughlin attempted to remove the assemblymembers by ordering a security sweep of the chamber, but they didn’t budge.
The conflict finally came to a head – or, more accurately, fizzled out – at around 3:45 p.m., when Coughlin chose to proceed with a truncated legislative session despite the continued presence of the renegade Republican legislators. Though the decision was in many ways a concession of defeat over the mandate, Coughlin still had harsh words for Republicans who had refused to follow it.
“I’m outraged that … 28 members of the minority caucus could not be bothered to [behave] with common decency and humanity, all because they would rather get a couple of minutes on the evening news,” Coughlin said. “The Democratic caucus came to Trenton today to take care of the people’s business. The Republican caucus chose to care more about allowing an outbreak at the statehouse.”
Coughlin was also strongly critical of the state police, who for most of the day appeared unsure of how to follow the many different directives being issued from multiple sources.
“There’s been a colossal failure in security here in the statehouse,” Coughlin said. “This is something we can’t have.”
From there, voting proceeded largely as normal. All seven bills that were brought to the floor passed unanimously, though many other bills on the agenda for the day were pushed to later days due to the delay in starting the session.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville), who has been possibly the most outspoken legislator in opposing the vaccine policy, said after the short voting session that he has no plans to cease his protests in the coming weeks of the lame duck session – though that may be a moot point anyways, since a state appellate court judge has now issued a stay on the mandate.
“If we, as Republicans, acquiesce to this policy, we’re saying it’s okay to do this in restaurants, in gyms, in hotels,” Bergen said. “We’re allowing the promulgation of this policy, which I can’t allow.”
Soon-to-be Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown) concurred, saying in a statement that the standoff today represented a victory for conservatives fighting against “unchecked” government mandates.
“We were successful today fighting for the people of New Jersey,” DiMaio said. “Standing up for the people is not political theater, it is our job.”
This story was updated at 5:47 p.m. with a statement from Assemblyman John DiMaio.