Politics feeds off narratives. Good narratives require tension. And when the other party can’t supply enough tension, the majority will start turning on itself. That kind of internal tension is abundant in this final week of the legislative session, and sorting it out will help us understand what awaits Republicans in next year’s statewide elections.
At about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, the penultimate day of the session, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, widely tipped as a candidate for governor, put the Senate on pause. His chamber had just passed its 38th bill of the day, and he had a complaint: The House was still sitting on three bills Senate Republicans set as priorities in 2017. “I am growing a little bit weary of passing all these (House) bills without the House doing anything,” he said.
An hour later, after a break of its own, the House took up one of those priorities, Senate Bill 1, a measure pitched as bolstering Georgia’s defenses against domestic terrorism. It fell short, as two dozen Republicans joined with Democrats to sink it. House members agreed to reconsider their action, then defeated the bill again.
The bill itself is dead, although bits and pieces of it could be shoved into other legislation and taken up yet again. Cagle fumed: “I will not give up on protecting our citizens and we can never subject the safety and security of Georgians to political gamesmanship.”
Much later, Speaker David Ralston — himself said to be mulling a gubernatorial run — would suggest he’d warned senators the bill “had problems.” Some in the House viewed it as an intrusive growth of government. “Members voted their conscience,” he said, “and it came up short … we gave it a try.”
The key words there are “voted their conscience.” When legislative leaders, but especially the House, really want a bill to pass, they have ways of ensuring its success. Yet the Republicans voting “no” included four committee chairmen, who typically toe the line when told to do so. One was Rep. Earl Ehrhart, whose bill to enhance due process for college students accused of rape died in the Senate. Another was Rep. Jay Powell, the Ways and Means chairman who has watched senators hack away at the House’s many tax bills.
One can imagine them being told to “vote their conscience,” and their consciences being informed in part by how their own priorities were treated in the Senate.
In the meantime, senators decided they’d had enough. In the middle of a debate, they voted 50-3 to table that measure, as well as the 30-plus other bills remaining on their docket, and quit for the night.
House members stuck around, waiting for revised legislation to be printed. Finally they voted to amend a Senate bill with language from an adoption measure the House prized that had stalled in the Senate. Saying senators had thrown a “hissy fit” in adjourning, Ralston urged his colleagues to support the rebooted adoption measure. They gave him a standing ovation, then passed it 159-0.
A few things stand out. First, this back and forth had little to do with partisanship. It took Republicans and Democrats in the House to defeat SB 1. The votes to table bills in the Senate and to pass the adoption measure in the House were overwhelmingly bipartisan.
But again, that’s not where the tension lies in this General Assembly. It’s between House members who feel senators focus more on political posturing than actually improving important bills, and senators who believe the House is needlessly hostile to their agenda. By next year, it could be between two chambers led by men on a collision course in the GOP primaries.
In which case this tense year may seem like a happier time.