THE VELVET-TONGUED push for a return to Portland's bad old days of discriminatory "sit-lie" rules—sparked earlier this year by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—seemed to be coursing its way through Salem with all the certainty of an unstoppable political juggernaut.

A bill that would reopen old wounds by lifting state constitutional limits on sidewalk rules—in the guise of reopening an old conversation—unanimously cleared one House committee (chaired by a former Portland cop) right before making it through the full chamber with only two dissenting votes.

And that bill, HB 2963, seemed poised for similar success in the Senate.

It's hard to argue that aggressive panhandling downtown isn't sometimes unpleasant. Mayor Charlie Hales, despite not taking a formal stance on the legislation, seemed to be winking his assent. And lawmakers could content themselves with the idea, technically true, that the bill would merely clear the way for changes that cities and businesses and advocates would still have to hash out.

Never mind that the PBA has been perfectly clear about the kinds of changes it would like: letting cops move along people accused of blocking sidewalks without having to first prove disorderly conduct. In a token gesture, the bill would make any punishment a civil violation, with a maximum fine of $250.

But in something of a surprise—and in a hopeful moment for homelessness and free-speech advocates fighting hard to fend off sit-lie's resurrection—that script has gone a bit askew. The Senate Judiciary Committee, in a public hearing last Wednesday, May 8, pointedly decided not to give the bill a gleeful green light.

Chairman Floyd Prozanski stared down the PBA's top lobbyist, Bernie Bottomly, and expressed open skepticism about the bill's worth.

And the PBA—which prepared for the meeting by bringing a verbatim copy of the presentation it used in the House Judiciary Committee—had to answer difficult questions about what HB 2963 would really set out to accomplish.

Prozanski, from famously tolerant Eugene, sounded a lot like the advocates battling the bill when he made the point that if all the PBA wants is a conversation about sidewalk rules that aren't working, then nothing is stopping them.

"It doesn't seem like the bill addressed [the desire for] a discussion," he said at the hearing. "It's giving a sanction based on whatever might come out of those discussions."

Prozanski then asked for court files probing years-old legal fights over Portland's old sit-lie laws. A Multnomah County judge in 2009 declared sit-lie unconstitutional because of state preemptions on traffic regulation. Prozanski's office tells me it could take days to digest the files and decide whether to schedule a vote.

That's important. Because any bill not marked for a committee vote by Monday, May 20, will die. And the sit-lie fight would wait until 2015. Meaningful conversation, of course, could still happen whenever.