When Tennessee's governor welcomed newly elected lawmakers to the statehouse early last year, he looked out across the House of Representatives at a chamber jam-packed with Republicans.
If he expected a sea of gently nodding heads, granting their assent to his agenda, what he's gotten has been anything but smooth sailing.
Back then, delivering his first State of the State address since Tennessee's GOP seized supermajority standing in both chambers, Gov. Bill Haslam had no idea that many of those same Republicans would later show up his education commissioner, forcing him to backtrack on a statewide initiative his administration held dear. Or that members in that body would attempt to undercut his proposed budget. Or that Republicans would come to blows over his plan to limit how much cold medicine people could buy to curtail the state's meth problem. Or that for the second year in a row, he would butt heads with fellow GOPers over his plan to send low-income kids at failing schools to private ones on the taxpayers' dime.
Today, his words sound prophetic.
"I believe we have to begin this evening by addressing the elephant in the room — or I guess I should say, the elephants in the room," Haslam told the chamber. "There are a lot of expectations and preconceived notions about how our Republican supermajority is going to govern. There is a narrative already being written for us this legislative session: Republicans will be fighting internally, and Democrats will be focused solely on playing politics instead of working across the aisle to find common ground for good government. But I think that makes caricatures out of us and sells all of us short."
Yet that is largely what has happened in the wake of the 2012 elections. With Republicans now firmly controlling the capitol, the power shift has essentially created a GOP General Assembly within the General Assembly. One might think that would make it easier to ramrod through an agenda, to draft legislation on broad bases of agreement.
But on several key issues, it hasn't. Boasting enough members to operate both chambers without a single Democrat in the room, Republicans this year began to question the governor's ideas — and their leadership's — in a way they were reticent to do before.
"We have some differences within our party, and that's to be expected. The larger you get, the more diverse your caucus is going to be," says House Speaker Beth Harwell, the Nashville Republican charged with wrangling the lively 99-member lower chamber.
Her biggest responsibility, she explains, is "pulling people together and oftentimes coming into the speaker's office and hammering out differences. So I spend a lot of time doing that," she says, laughing.
The House of Representatives is home to a whopping 71 Republicans. They largely vote together. But in the wake of the elections, they've begun to build factions that have hardened into coalitions on specific issues — for example, changes in the state's education system.
"Just because you have a supermajority doesn't mean that you're going to have a supermajority," says Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican. Earlier this session, White sought to preserve an education policy he and the Haslam administration supported, proudly. He found himself trying to stop a growing army of his fellow party members from teaming up with Democrats in opposition. The effort left him fuming on the House floor.
This has been the hardest of his five years as a legislator, says White, who doubles as head of the Education Subcommittee. "My biggest struggle this year in education has really come from my own party."
That's good in many ways, White is quick to add, "because it helps us understand all sides." Nevertheless, party unity was easier when Republicans had a sliver of a majority, he explains. They were forced to stick together to get what they wanted.
"Now we don't have to — we have the flexibility with 71 members," White says. "You get now more into everyone's opinion, which is their background. They're from different parts of the state: east, middle and west. You've got rural, you've got urban — and I think a lot of that comes out because you have the freedom to do that."
He could be describing Rep. Matthew Hill, the Jonesborough Republican who has been something of a thorn in House Republican leadership's side. Last year, when Speaker Harwell's footmen attempted to rush through a bill permitting the sale of wine in grocery stores — a bill with overwhelming public support — Hill bristled. He alone thwarted the plan by changing his vote at the last minute.
On a second try this year, the bill passed. Still, Hill has continued to cut against the grain of Republican power in his chamber in 2014. He helped a team of Republicans partner with Democrats to slow down adoption of the controversial PARCC exam for Tennessee students by hijacking the bill. He later led a push to edit Haslam's budget, hoping to restore raises for teachers and state employees after the governor cut them for lack of funds. Hill's plan was foiled after House GOP leadership and the state's constitutional officers scared away the necessary votes.
"That is a supermajority just trying to feel its way through what it means to be a supermajority," Hill says. "I know that our caucus, the House Republican Caucus, supports the governor when the governor supports us. But that doesn't mean we're going to agree on things 100 percent of the time. But we do agree 100 percent of the time of what our main goal is, which is trying to make Tennessee a better place."
The kind of alliances brokered between Republicans and Democrats were largely a new development this year. But it didn't always involve the same factions, or even the same issues. Democrats paired with moderate Republicans, for example, to kill a bill that would have allowed gun owners to carry weapons openly. But they sided with more conservative GOP colleagues to delay the PARCC test.
"We finally as a Democratic Caucus, we have been able to reach out, and there's some hands reaching back at us in order to deliver real products, real services to the people of Tennessee, instead of a lot of political jargon and some red-meat social issues," says Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat. He had a front-row seat for the often heated tug-of-war over whether the governor's restrictions went too far on purchasing cold medicines with pseudoephedrine, a methamphetamine precursor.
Rep. Susan Lynn recalls it was fun when she was a Republican in the early 2000s when the GOP minority clawed to gain control of the House. Now that they have a supermajority, she says, the dynamics have changed.
"That's the thing, we don't all agree on everything all the time," Lynn says. "I think for most of session there was probably a little bit of, some people felt like, 'You're not as good a Republican as me because you don't agree with me.' We can't go there, we cannot do that. You have to listen to everybody."
If so, Gov. Haslam might want to pass out some hearing aids. His plan offering vouchers to poor students at low-performing schools couldn't muster the votes to make it out of a House committee on one of the final days of the legislative session. His other proposals passed, but even then the legislature watered some of them down.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey rejects the notion the governor took a beating this year.
"If we had passed everything he put in, you'd been in the same press conference [saying], 'Y'all are just rubber stamps. Everything he puts up, you do,' " Ramsey says.
"We are an independent body, and our founding fathers were brilliant for setting up this system. We have to have some kind of consensus. And so if we change anything, suddenly [it's], 'You had a rough year, we're beating up on him.' I just don't look at it that way at all."
Still, Ramsey admits that over the past two years, relationships have at times hit the skids between fellow Republicans. This time last year, he and the House Speaker were not on speaking terms after an end-of-session game of chicken resulted in Ramsey and Harwell both losing favorite bills.
"There was some animosity, no doubt about that. That wasn't a secret," Ramsey says. "But I think we learned from that, and instead of getting to that boiling point, there's many times that Beth and I sat down, the governor and I sat down, one-on-one, and said, 'I don't want to get there.'
"We're never going to agree — you don't want us to agree. Again, this system that we have — that the House members are of a much smaller district, and we look at more of a big picture, and the governor looks statewide — that is a great way to do this. I think there was very little if any infighting this year. Really."
What's telling is the General Assembly has enough votes to override vetoes from the governor, but hasn't yet, says John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. And legislators decided against returning this year in the event the governor rejects any of their ideas in the next month.
Now that the two-year legislative session has ended and lawmakers are out in their districts preparing their re-election campaigns, the cycle starts all over again.
"We're not always going to agree on what good policy is," Haslam said in that 2013 State of the State speech. "And the way democracy works is that people in this room were elected for different reasons and often times because of specific issues, but can't we all agree that in the end, the focus should be and will be on a better Tennessee?"
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