Posted 11/11/2012 03:19 pm
Updated 6 months ago
LITTLE ROCK - Heading into last week's election, Democrats and Republicans in Arkansas said they didn't believe voters wanted the state Legislature to mimic a gridlocked Congress. What voters offered instead was something possibly far worse.
With a Republican-controlled Senate, a nearly evenly divided House and a Democratic governor, Arkansas faces a new political reality that could spell disaster for tackling many of the state's major problems. Neither party has enough votes in the Legislature to pass most of the state's budget bills alone, and consensus on some of the most heated issues on the agenda next year is easier said than done.
They're returning to the Capitol after an election where many Republicans won partly on their opposition to the health care law that will be a key part of next year's legislative agenda, and some conservative lawmakers won in primaries after tacking to the right against more moderate rivals. Add to that the hard feelings from Gov. Mike Beebe, who felt that outside conservative groups were trashing his record and the state in their bid for the Legislature, and Republicans who were stung by campaign mailers partly funded by the state Democratic Party that they said crossed the line into personal attacks.
Aware that these ingredients could be a recipe for the type of division both parties say voters are sick of in Washington, House and Senate leaders have spent the days following the election trying to strike a bipartisan tone. Incoming Senate President Michael Lamoureux avoided painting his party's 21-14 majority in the state Senate as a mandate for Republicans after 138 years of Democrat control.
"Nothing on the extreme end is going to happen," said Lamoureux, who was elected the chamber's incoming president two days after the election. "Anyone who was planning on changing the world in 2013 probably needs to look for another job."
Republicans in a more sharply divided House are likewise talking up cooperation after an election that gave the GOP a razor-thin majority that could be on the line during a recount for one seat. Republicans hold a 51-48 margin over Democrats in the House, with the Green Party holding one seat.
"I feel like, working together, we can accomplish a lot of good things," said Rep. Terry Rice, the Republicans' pick for speaker if the party's majority holds in the House. "The people who voted 51, 48 and one, if that holds, tells me they want us to work together, and that will be my goal."
Democrats seem as eager to keep that tone, even as they look to the recount to possibly deny the GOP an outright majority in the House. Twenty-five Democrats joined with 51 Republicans to ask for a new election for speaker, and current Democratic Speaker-Designate Darrin Williams said he's holding off on any permanent decisions until the new speaker is decided.
"I'm not going to be an obstructionist... We're going to let this process work," Williams said.
Bipartisanship may be easy when picking seats and committee assignments, but will be more elusive once legislation starts hitting lawmakers' desks. The tensions between the parties - not to mention the traditional divides between the House and Senate - will become clearer in the coming weeks as both sides start laying out their agendas in more detail.
The most likely split will be over Medicaid, which faces a $358 million projected shortfall and questions over whether to expand its eligibility under the federal health care law. The divide will grow with many Republicans eager to push for voter ID laws, abortion restrictions and cuts to the state's income tax.
The biggest test of the call for bipartisanship could come over the Medicaid expansion and a host of budget bills that will require a three-fourths vote in both chambers. Though Republicans can claim a majority, they don't have the votes in either chamber to push through budget bills without the help of some Democrats.
Beebe, who said he doesn't plan on changing his agenda because of the new makeup of the Legislature, said the new landscape of the House and Senate offer a test. Both parties stand to lose if they can't work together despite party differences, Beebe said.
"I think gridlock and non-cooperation is a bipartisan issue," Beebe said. "It cuts both ways."
The result could also be a test for an Arkansas electorate that seems as divided as the Legislature next year.
"If we believe elections express the will of the people, that's a pretty divided will," Lamoureux said. "We've got a divided allocation of power. That's what people wanted and that's what we'll deal with."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)