In the end, as always, it was all about Sen. Peter Galbraith.
Throughout this year's labyrinthine debate over whether to allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives, the loquacious Democrat from Windham County has been behind every turn.
Wednesday night was no different.
By a vote of 17 to 13, the Senate amended the ever-changing end-of-life choices bill to ameliorate Galbraith's concerns while still providing dying Vermonters a legal avenue to end their own lives. The latest version now moves back to the House, where it's expected to pass, and then on to the governor, who has signaled he will sign it.
"I think what we have found here is something that strikes a balance," Galbraith (pictured above) told his colleagues. "It isn't perfect. It isn't what I would like to have seen, but I think it accommodates what I think is in the best interest of Vermonters."
The compromise essentially enacts for three years a state-sanctioned process for doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients expected to live six months or less. In July 2016, that process would sunset, and be replaced by a stripped-down law simply indemnifying doctors who prescribe such drugs.
Gabraith and Sen. Bob Hartwell (D-Bennington) have long opposed the more comprehensive approach, which is modeled on a 1994 Oregon law. In February, they joined 13 opponents of the bill — along with the tie-breaking Lt. Gov. Phil Scott — in replacing it with the stripped-down version. But last week, the House voted 81-64 to return to the original Oregon-style language and send it back to the Senate.
That left the bill's proponents with little option but to find some sort of compromise that could appeal to Galbraith or Hartwell without alienating its stronger supporters in the House.
Late Tuesday, after hours of debate on the measure, those efforts seemed doomed to failure. But near the end of the night, Galbraith signaled to the bill's chief proponent, Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), that he was ready to strike a deal.
On Wednesday, Galbraith and Ayer huddled with legislative lawyers in a Statehouse committee room to settle on final language before dramatically unveiling their amendment on the Senate floor that afternoon.
But opponents were not about to go quietly into the night. Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who has fought the bill as hard as Ayer has supported it, pushed to delay a vote so that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, could review it. In committee (pictured at left), he interrogated Ayer and sought to poke holes in the bill, but eventually conceded to her, "You're going to win."
When the Senate reconvened late in the afternoon, Sears made one last stand, warning Galbraith that the stripped-down language he favored would never actually take effect in 2016, because the bill's proponents would return to the legislature before then to make their version permanent.
"I'm not a great predictor, but I will predict that someone will do that in 2015 and you'll be back to the original bill," Sears said. "So if you think you're voting for something that will become effective in 2016 — the so-called 'Vermont-style' — think again."
But the writing was on the wall — and most senators seemed tired of a debate that's lasted months in the Senate and more than a decade in Vermont. The only surprise when the final vote was cast was that Hartwell, who seemed inclined to oppose the bill, joined Galbraith in voting in favor of it.
"I just felt that it was of such importance to people that, while I have misgivings, I felt in the end it was the right thing to do," Hartwell said after the Senate acted. "Under all of the circumstances, it was probably the best bill you could get from an issue like this."
Watching the bill pass from the Senate gallery was Shelburne resident Dick Walters (pictured at right), who founded Patient Choices Vermont 10 years ago and has fought for such legislation ever since. Ever mindful of unexpected pitfalls, Walters was restrained in his reaction, saying, "It's just one more step."
But he expressed optimism that the House would see it through.
"I continue to have faith in the system — that people will listen to their constituents and do what they think is best," he said.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville), whose chamber will take up the latest version of the bill in the coming days, said after Senate passage that he believes he has the votes to get it through the House.
"I know that members of the House who worked on the bill followed the amendment closely," he said. "My hope is that the House will concur with the Senate proposal."