By JOHN O'CONNOR
AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois House returns to Springfield for the second half of a lame-duck legislative session Sunday, likely continuing the roller coaster of escalating hopes, discouraging dips and resurgent optimism that the highly touted but shortened Senate gathering inspired last week.
Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders met Saturday after an opening appeared for talks on pension reform, suggesting new life for the final days of this General Assembly. But the meeting ended with no reported progress.
Though the need to find a fix for a $96 billion pension deficit at the forefront of most taxpayers’ minds, the Senate barely seemed to notice as it convened last week, instead bravely taking on the high-profile but risky issues of gay marriage and gun control. Both fell short of where supporters hoped they'd be by week's end.
Why couldn't Senate Democrats, 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 more freedom to vote as they please?
“When we passed the income tax, when we abolished the death penalty ... in a lame-duck session, we were criticized for using lame ducks to pass major legislation,” said Senate President John Cullerton, referring to the 2011 lame-duck gathering, in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.
“When we pass routine legislation, we get criticized for not passing major legislation, so let's just get that off my chest,” he said. “Passing gay marriage and passing major gun control bills is always going to be very, very tough.”
Abruptly leaving town Thursday night and canceling Friday's scheduled meeting, Cullerton told members to be ready to return to the Capitol on Tuesday to take up any House legislation. But he didn't expect senators would be needed before Wednesday, when a new General Assembly is sworn in.
“Obviously, it turned out to be a waste of time,” said Sen. David Luechtefeld, and assistant Republican leader from Okawville. “We have a budget problem, we have a nearly unsolvable pension problem, and they take up these extremely controversial issues.”
Cullerton pointed out that those issues aren't dead, and Democrats merely pulled them back for further work after hearing GOP opposition.
“It's a matter of pleasing people enough to get enough votes,” Cullerton said.
It's “mind-numbing” that people forget the Senate adopted a pension reform bill in May, the Chicago Democrat said, acknowledging that the measure is limited, but provides a framework for expansion.
And he has previously suggested setting aside — for now — the prickly question of local school districts picking up some of the retirement cost of teachers, a concession made by his House counterpart, Speaker Michael Madigan, that opened the door to Saturday's talks.
Cullerton is 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. Nationally, November's balloting produced significant momentum for the state's gay marriage movement, as voters in four states either approved gay marriage or rejected bans.
Just two years after Illinois embraced civil unions for same-sex couples and with recent public encouragement from President Barack Obama, gay marriage backers thought the time was right. But a procedural setback unexpectedly held it up.
It was late Thursday before the Executive Committee voted 8-5 to send it to the Senate floor, following Republican complaints about details of the bill. Proponents said they didn't want a floor vote because three senators whose “yes” votes were needed were not present.
Legislation to regulate high-capacity ammunition clips and assault rifles in the wake of last month's Connecticut school massacre received a similarly chilly reception, winning committee approval but needing other technical details OK'd by another panel before seeing floor action.
Cullerton asserted it's all part of the legislative process, not the result of too much nose-counting and too little focus on clear legislative language.
“Did we waste time by doing this exercise? Absolutely not,” Cullerton said. Committee hearings on guns and gay marriage “flushed out the opposition” and helped Democrats determine where they can clarify language or concede issues.
“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.’ ”
While supporters likely wanted to move now instead of awaiting the unknown motives of the freshmen lawmakers, Cullerton now says both gay marriage and guns can wait.
“It's not like there's an emergency or a deadline we have to meet,” he said.
But, speaking before Saturday's meeting on pensions, Cullerton stressed that while he told senators he didn't anticipate an early return, a House vote on pensions or any other major matter will usher the chamber back.
“The message,” Cullerton said, “is, ‘We are open for business’ on Tuesday.”
Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor