This year's legislative session is scheduled to end next week — and not a moment too soon for cranky Republicans, who are fighting among themselves and brazenly dissing a governor and U.S. senator of their own party.
In his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Bill Haslam made a point of insisting the Republican supermajority could coexist and govern peaceably, despite what that liberal media might say. It hasn't worked out that way, with the tea party sniping at the establishment, leaders struggling to control rank-and-filers, and social conservatives sticking it to business conservatives. Democrats have watched in amazement from the sidelines.
"I think I saw Cheshire Cat walking down the hall the other day," said Nashville Rep. Mike Turner, the House's No. 2 Democrat. "We've fallen down the rabbit hole."
Just last week, Haslam was forced to pull the plug on his school voucher bill because doctrinaire rebels in his own party were determined to expand it.
The governor wanted to give vouchers only to low-income children in failing schools. All this session, he delayed votes on his bill in the Senate while he tried to persuade some Republicans — led by Sens. Brian Kelsey and Dolores Gresham, the Education Committee chair — not to expand his program. But Gresham and Kelsey wanted the program to apply to the children of families earning as much as $75,000 a year. As many as 10,000 vouchers could have gone out next fall under that plan, dwarfing Haslam's bill.
For a Tennessee governor to be unable to pass one of his signature bills because of opposition from his own party's legislative leaders is almost unheard of. To reporters, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris used tough language in assigning blame, calling the Republican dissidents unreasonable grandstanders and accusing them of turning vouchers into a political football.
"As majority leader, I tried to give as much time as possible for reason to prevail," Norris said. "Rather than fewer amendments, we received word that there would be more amendments, all of which attempted to broaden the governor's initiative beyond what he feels is appropriate. So it was counterproductive. We were moving in the wrong direction rather than in the right direction. There was sort of too much brinksmanship among the proponents of amendments."
In another unusual criticism of a party leader, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey fingered Kelsey as the culprit in the failure of school vouchers. To reporters, Ramsey said Kelsey, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was "bound and determined" to expand the governor's program, and Kelsey refused to back down despite Haslam's insistence.
Thumbing their noses at Haslam again, Republicans on the House Health Committee last week adopted legislation to cut welfare benefits for the families of children who do poorly in school. The vote came a day after the governor said he was against the bill and might veto it.
Haslam managed to dodge one big fight with his party's right wing by refusing to make up his mind about whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The governor was lucky to stop Republicans from ramming through legislation to make it illegal to add to the Medicaid rolls.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker hasn't escaped party infighting. He was forced to personally intervene to stop a tea party-backed measure to end Senate primaries in Tennessee and give the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the legislature the power to pick the nominees. As a moderate Republican, Corker has brought upon him the wrath of the tea partiers, and he probably couldn't win the nomination if it were up to Republicans in the legislature.
After he phoned both Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell to complain about the bill, it was withdrawn. But in talking to reporters about it, both speakers went out of their way to offer petty complaints about Corker. Harwell was upset because Corker had never phoned her before about any bill, and Ramsey didn't like it because Corker didn't call him back to say thanks once the bill died.
Republicans are trying to put a happy spin on all the turmoil. Democracy is a little messy sometimes, they say. Asked last week whether Haslam now was officially irrelevant to the legislative process, Ramsey protested and gave the governor credit for stopping all-out anarchy.
"If he was irrelevant to the process we'd have a voucher bill passed right now," the Senate speaker said. "If he was irrelevant to the process, there probably would have been a bill passed that would have said no in stone to Affordable Care Act and ObamaCare. That is a huge misstatement. I think he's very relevant to the process."
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