North Carolina Senate Democrats saw an opening early Wednesday they say would have allowed them to pass a lottery bill and give Gov. Mike Easley a big political victory.
But they didn't walk all the way through.
Here's what happened: Senate Democrats contended that Sen. Hamilton Horton, R-Forsyth, did not properly request a leave of absence to miss the session Wednesday.
The leave is necessary to allow an absent member to pair up with a colleague who is present and would vote differently on a bill. The "pair" effectively cancels out the two votes so an absence doesn't affect the outcome of a vote.
Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, rose about 1 a.m. and objected to Horton's excused absence, which would void the pairing of Horton, a lottery opponent, with Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, who supports the lottery.
With Sen. John Garwood, R-Wilkes, a lottery opponent, staying overnight in a hospital after becoming ill, a vote on a lottery early Wednesday likely would have been deadlocked. Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Senate president and a lottery supporter, would have broken the tie.
Rand's decision brought some tense moments on the Senate floor, with Republican leaders huddling to figure out a strategy.
Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, rose a few minutes later and asked that Horton's absence be honored after all, much to Perdue's dismay.
"So ordered, but with great reluctance," she said.
Basnight tried to downplay the early morning drama later with reporters, but acknowledged that denying the excused absence likely would have removed North Carolina's label as the only East Coast state without a lottery.
"We could pass the lottery and it would have been (within) the rules," he said. But Basnight said they wanted to treat Horton, a veteran legislator, with respect.
Getting the lottery through in that way could have damaged relations among senators.
"It's something we weren't willing to do," Basnight said. "The lottery is not worth that to us."
Easley has made getting a lottery for education programs a priority in his first 41/2 years in office. He even spoke on the phone late Tuesday with several lottery opponents to attempt to persuade them to change sides but didn't make headway.
Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, agreed that the Democrats could have won on the lottery if they had denied "the commitment that Sen. Hoyle had made to Sen. Horton to pair."
"I felt like they would end up and do the right thing" and accept the pair, Berger added.
Another "pair" for a lottery vote had been agreed to between an absent Sen. Larry Shaw, D-Cumberland, and Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson.
Basnight and other lottery supporters have complained Republicans have coerced their members to oppose a lottery, an allegation GOP members deny.