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Supermajority in TN legislature may be boon or bane for Republicans

6:15 PM, Nov 11, 2012   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Gov. Bill Haslam describes it as a good problem to have.

Asked frequently in recent weeks whether the Republican Party's expected landslide in the general election would create new challenges for him, Haslam invoked former GOP Govs. Winfield Dunn and Lamar Alexander, both of whom faced cantankerous legislatures led by Democrats.

"It's a lot better than the alternative," Haslam said. "I'd way rather have a supermajority in my party, and I'd rather have it than have a one- or two-vote majority. There's difficulties in every situation."

Republicans will return to Nashville in January with their biggest delegation in more than a century, supermajorities in both chambers of 26 senators and 70 representatives. Not since Democrats dominated the statehouse in the 1960s has one party wielded such complete power in Tennessee.

The large Republican majority could give Haslam and leaders of the state legislature absolute authority to enact their agenda. Or it could contain the seeds of their political undoing.

"There are essentially three parties out there now: the Republicans, the Democrats and the tea party," said state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House minority leader.

The Republican rise has forced massive turnover in the legislature, particularly the House of Representatives. Of 70 Republicans members, only 12 have been in office a decade or longer, and 33 had never served before 2011.

The newcomers include tea party insurgents and business-oriented conservatives, making it difficult to predict how they will shape the course of events in Nashville. Even Haslam says he doesn't know many of them well.

"Some of them I've known and campaigned for," he said in an interview last week. "Some of them I've known since I campaigned because they're people that helped me. But there are a lot that I only have an acquaintance-type relationship with."

Watershed win

Gaining a supermajority ranks as a watershed moment for the Republican Party in Tennessee, but its significance is largely symbolic.

Republicans already had enough numbers to override a gubernatorial veto - not that one is likely with the party also holding the governor's office - and they hold a firm grip on the speaker's gavels in the House and Senate.

Before the election, Republicans said holding at least two-thirds of the seats in the House and Senate would guarantee Democrats could not disrupt proceedings by walking out and denying them the quorum needed by law to conduct business. But that argument assumed Tennessee Democrats would use a tactic they have never threatened to try.

Republicans also will gain the power to suspend the rules of debate, allowing them to dictate when votes occur. But doing so could cause as many political problems as it would solve - one of which would be muzzling their own members.

Republicans - or at least their predecessors - appear to have held a supermajority at least once before. Gov. William Brownlow, an abolitionist who led the state from 1865 to 1869, presided over a legislature made up entirely of members elected on the "Loyal Union slate," according to the legislature's official librarian.

Supermajorities were also the norm during the 20th century, with Democrats brandishing the gavel. In 1938, Democrats won 84 of the House's 99 seats. Four years later, the party held all but three of the Senate's 33 seats.

As late as 1966, well into the civil rights movement that forged a dramatic realignment of the two parties, Democrats held two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

TN Republicans traveled rough road

Previous supermajorities had a muting effect on debate in the General Assembly. Lawmakers then knew that as long as they deferred to the wishes of their governor and party leaders, they were almost certain to win re-election.

It is not clear that such a dynamic will be repeated, because the road to a Republican supermajority has been anything but smooth.

The party surged from an evenly divided legislature to 64 seats in the 2010 election. Most of the gains came in the form of political neophytes supported by the tea party.

In this year's election, Republicans added six more seats, but it's hard to pin down whether either wing of the Republican Party will emerge as dominant within that group.

Many of the newcomers were personally recruited by GOP leaders to run for seats left open by redistricting. Others picked off long-time Republicans leaders such as Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, the House Republican Caucus chairwoman, and Sevierville Rep. Richard Montgomery, chairman of the House Education Committee, in the Republican primary.

So far, the Republican Party's leadership appears set to remain in charge. With caucus elections planned soon after Thanksgiving, no member has announced plans to challenge House Speaker Beth Harwell or state Rep. Gerald McCormick, the majority leader. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey remains firmly ensconced in the Senate.

But the leanings of individual members within the Republican supermajority will be important. Lawmakers next year are expected to weigh a voucher program for public schools, tax cuts, changes to the workers' compensation system, health care reform and a statewide authorizer for charter schools.

The outcome of those debates could turn on whether moderate Republicans hold more conservative colleagues in check - or if moderates decide they'll run too great a risk of being challenged in the 2014 primaries.

State Rep. Glen Casada, a veteran Republican representative from Thompson's Station and so far the only candidate to replace Maggart as caucus chairman, said he expects little dissension from the Republican ranks.

"There are things that, as a Republican, you hold very dear, no matter if you're suburban, urban or rural," he said. "There are some regional differences, but if you agree with me 80 percent of the time, we agree."

But Haslam says one of the first tasks of Republican leaders next year will be getting to know the new members. And for the newcomers, it will be learning their roles as legislators.

"It takes anybody new a while to get their sea legs," he said.

Dems expect dissent

Democrats are forecasting dissent from within the Republican ranks. Speaking to reporters last week, Democratic leaders said they will be unified while their GOP counterparts squabble.

"Gov. Haslam has a hard road ahead," Fitzhugh said. "Many of their new members appear to be extremists from the far right of the political spectrum. He'll have to show a little more than he has."

Republicans are not the only ones with challenges on their hands. With only a quarter of the seats in the General Assembly and a political map redrawn through redistricting to favor GOP candidates, Democrats could face decades in the minority.

The dynamics had Democratic leaders last week claiming minor victories - that they had managed to defeat a single Republican member of the House, that 24 incumbent representatives had successfully defended their seats, that three other Democrats had won open seats.

"They had a supermajority in the House when they left in April. With redistricting, they were up to 74 seats," said state Rep. Mike Turner, the Democratic Caucus chairman. "I think we won."

The outcome left Democrats grasping for ways to describe their new place as the superminority. They said they would work with Republicans to some extent but also vowed to force them to show they could hold onto power.

"We know who's driving the car, and it's the Republicans, and we clearly understand that," Fitzhugh said. "But they're the ones that have it on their shoulders right now."

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