TRENTON – Some Republican lawmakers ignored and walked past state troopers who were denying them access to the Assembly floor Thursday because they hadn’t complied with a new vaccine-or-test rule for access to the Statehouse.

“They’re not going to physically restrain us,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris. “We can walk right past them.”

It took until nearly three hours after the 15-minute standoff between mostly maskless lawmakers and troopers ended quietly but defiantly for the Assembly voting session to begin, at 3:40 p.m. rather than 1 p.m.

Majority-party Democrats had been unwilling to report to the floor where the Republicans were waiting. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin then ripped the GOP for what he called "a political stunt" and ended the session after votes on seven time-sensitive bills, ignoring around 60 other bills that were on the agenda.

"I'm outraged that in the midst of this sacrifice, 28 members of the minority caucus could not be bothered to exhibit the common decency and humanity all because they would rather have a couple of minutes on TV news or a point to stand for some political theater," Coughlin said.

“The Democratic caucus came to Trenton today to take care of the people’s business," he said. "The Republican caucus chose to care more about allowing an outbreak at the Statehouse.”

“There’s been a colossal failure in security here at the Statehouse," Coughlin said. "This is something we can’t tolerate.”

Tensions ran high all day. The Assembly chamber had been closed off after a security sweep, with doors that are normally open locked to require all entry through a single access point. There were more state troopers on hand than usual, as well.

Troopers blocked Republicans from entering unless they showed a COVID vaccine card or proof of a recent negative test, but lawmakers told them the policy is illegal and demanded to know who was directing them to enforce it.

Some members of the Assembly Republican caucus challenged a vaccine-or-test policy as they seek to enter the Assembly chamber. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
Some members of the Assembly Republican caucus challenged a vaccine-or-test policy as they seek to enter the Assembly chamber. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
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"I have a right to be here on the floor. That commission has no authority over me," said Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, when told he was in violation of the policy. He then turned toward the hallway and shouted: "You see this? See this, folks? Denying us entry into our house."

"This is tyranny, folks!" Peterson said. "America, see what's happening here! See what's happening, America. They're not letting the minority party vote."

"This is what happens in China and Russia when they try to silence their critics," said Assemblywman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex. "And they're using our great state troopers as pawns. It's disgusting."

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, said via Twitter at 2:35 p.m. that Coughlin had told Republicans they would be “physically removed and/or carried out” if they didn’t vacate the chamber within two hours. She then followed up to say "security sweep cancelled!"

The latest COVID-related rules for Statehouse access were adopted Thursday by legislative leaders and posted outside the chambers. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
The latest COVID-related rules for Statehouse access were adopted Thursday by legislative leaders and posted outside the chambers. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
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A regular Senate voting session was held, after a lengthy delay that is typical for the Statehouse. Republicans spoke against a rule enacted Thursday morning that governs access to the chambers and committee rooms, but Democrats blocked their push for a vote to rescind the policy.

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Senate and Assembly Republicans filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the vaccine-or-test policy adopted in October and later updated by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission. An appeals court judge late Thursday scheduled a full hearing on Dec. 13.

Under the policy, lawmakers who are unvaccinated or don't want to show a vaccine card can gain entry by showing a negative test taken within the last week. Rapid tests were available at the Statehouse.

Lawmakers barred from the chamber could participate in debates and vote remotely. Assemblyman John Catalano, R-Ocean, and Assemblyman Ron Dancer, R-Ocean, cast their votes remotely Thursday by announcing them.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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