By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before a House vote to give final approval to a contentious firearms bill last week, Speaker Beth Harwell implored her Republican colleagues to ignore demands from what she deemed “fringe” groups to make major changes to the measure.
The chamber took Harwell’s advice and passed the bill guns-in-parking-lots bill without any changes. Lawmakers have also in recent weeks drawn the line at proposals to bypass the federal government by allowing the creation an independent health care network and stopped a proposal to ban the enforcement of federal firearms laws in Tennessee.
The failure of those two bills in House and Senate committees indicates a new willingness among leaders of the GOP supermajority to reel in some of the more extreme — and likely unconstitutional — measures before they reach a floor vote, where lawmakers might have a harder time voting against them for ideological reasons.
Last year Gov. Bill Haslam decried the attention being paid to what he called the “craziest” measures, although he blamed the news media and not the lawmakers for that. It was a signal, nevertheless, that Republican leaders have worried about how some of the bills reflected on Tennessee’s image.
GOP hardliners’ social agenda will be on full display in the General Assembly this week, reports Andy Sher, with serious moves toward changing state policy mixed with mostly symbolic protests against what sponsors see as either federal lassitude or overreaching.
Nearing the back stretch of a session dominated by Republicans, the beleaguered House Democratic Caucus chairman said he feels like he’s in “Alice in Wonderland.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.”
Republicans swept the House, the Senate and the governor’s office in November’s elections, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, is unperturbed by the criticism.
“They’ve been calling us right-wing kooks for the last decade, and it is now 64-34 [GOP majority] in the House and 20-13 in the Senate,” he said, chuckling.
“Baby, keep pouring it on, because the people of the state of Tennessee are with us on most of these issues.”
Sunday’s News Sentinel column, unedited version:
With the House leadership and Gov. Bill Haslam as moderating influences, Republican legislators continue to strive toward a balance between what some Democrats label “crazy, right-wing stuff” and a reasonable conservative consensus.
The process appears to involve some weeding in the GOP garden of ideas as well as pruning and fertilizing selected seedlings.
On the weeding front, for example, House Republicans – with relatively little fanfare – killed a bill that would have required President Obama to provide his birth certificate to Secretary of State Tre Hargett in order to be on the ballot in Tennessee for the 2012 election.
Also tossed aside, with even less fanfare, was a bill that would have set up a legislative committee to review federal laws and regulations and decide which, if any, should be recommended to the full Legislature for nullification.
There remain rooted other examples of the notion that state legislators should be overseeing congressmen and the president. One, the Health Care Freedom Act, has passed, though at maturity it seems little more than a symbolic gesture to declare that Tennesseans can ignore the national health care law.
The more ambitious Health Care Compact, which envisions a state takeover of federal health care programs and the federal money to pay for them is still being pruned and fertilized.
So is the bill that began as a move to ban collective bargaining by teacher associations with the pruning handled in the House – where Speaker Beth Harwell had to cast a tie-breaking vote last week to keep the thing alive – and fertilizing in the Senate. It is unclear what the seedling will look like when, and if, it reaches maturity.
But it is clear that there is a Republican consensus that something should be done. Similar pruning and fertilizing – and the same clear consensus for doing something, if not exactly what that should be – is underway on Haslam’s tort reform bill.
Ditto for the illegal immigration legislation, where normally Republican-leaning business lobbyists are at odds with the perceived populist uprising for action – most notably on a bill that would require businesses to use the federal “E-Verify” system to check the legal status of their employees.
Some quoted commentary in an Action Andy Sher rundown on the conflict between Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican “hardliners,” notably including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey:
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said Ramsey has been “clearly out there with a harder line.”
A number of Senate Republicans are backing Ramsey and pushing on legislation ranging from increased opportunities to carry handguns in public to crackdowns on illegal immigrants, he noted.
“That’s probably not where Haslam wants to go,” Oppenheimer said.
But Haslam may be creating his own problems by consistently refusing to take firm public stances on a number of bills, Oppenheimer suggested.
“I think that inadvertently he’s looked more passive than he might want to be and that invites people who have agendas to push them through the Legislature, to test that,” Oppenheimer said.
..Though “moderate” is practically a fighting word in the GOP, former House Speaker Kent Williams, a Republican who became an independent after letting Democrats elect him speaker in 2009, says it applies to both Haslam and Harwell.
“I believe Haslam is trying to smooth the waters. I think he’s trying to keep the Republican Party united, and I don’t think it is united,” Williams said.
The Tennessee Conservative Union’s Lloyd Daugherty said Republican legislative conservatives were excited when they completed their takeover the House, Senate and governor’s office last year.
“I know there’s been some talk that, you know, ‘We can show the rest of the country what Republicans being in charge can really be like.’ But I think with Haslam as governor, they’re going to be kind of hard put to make a huge contrast with the rest of the country.”
…..Ramsey said there is no element of sour grapes involved regarding his third place finish in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Haslam, who outspent his rivals, won the GOP primary with 47 percent of the vote. Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp had 29 percent and Ramsey had 22 percent.
“Let’s be honest,” Ramsey said, “when you get outspent $15 million to $3 million you lost the race. That doesn’t bother me the slightest bit.”
Williams, the former Speaker, said Haslam should be ready for a continuing challenge from the right.
He won’t be surprised if Haslam faces a hard-right GOP challenger in 2014.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that opponent’s Ron Ramsey to be honest with you.”