Posted 11/18/2012 09:01 am
Updated 1 year ago
LITTLE ROCK — Taking over the state House for the first time in 138 years was the easy part for Arkansas Republicans. The bigger challenge may be healing the rifts within their ranks.
Republican Rep. Davy Carter's surprising and rapid election as incoming speaker last week highlighted the divides within the GOP as it transitions into its new role as the legislative majority. It also shows the opening that Democrats believe they have even after losing control of both the House and Senate.
Carter, from Cabot, defeated fellow GOP Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron, who had been touted throughout the legislative campaign by party leaders as the next House speaker. Carter won by winning support of House Democrats and a handful of Republicans.
While Republicans will lead the House for the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats found a way to celebrate anyway.
"This was a major coup for the party," House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said after Carter's win. "I think it still demonstrates that Democrats still carry considerable power in the House and that both sides are going to have to come together to work because neither side can just run all over the other."
Leding and other Democrats believed Carter would be more moderate and be able to bridge the two parties after an election that left the House nearly split in half. He won the speaker's post after a mostly impromptu speech where he promised to work with both parties. The GOP holds a 51-48-1 edge over Democrats and the Green Party.
"We all know we're going to have to work together," Carter said.
The test of that statement will come as next year's session approaches, with both Democrats and Republicans eyeing Carter's picks to lead the House's top committees. Republicans have already made their priorities clear for next year's session, with the GOP filling all but five spots on the Revenue and Taxation Committee.
The biggest hurdle for Carter, however, may come from his own party. Moments after Carter's election, a Rice ally called the outcome "sad" for the GOP caucus.
"(Rice) has helped a lot of people and by helping a lot of people it came back and bit him," said Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs. "He helped raise money for people that voted against him today."
It's a sentiment that could lead to some ugly fights within the Republican caucus, and a chance for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe to peel away some GOP support for part of his legislative agenda. Whether the fight over speaker leads to a split among Republicans on policy remains to be seen.
Hints of potential divisions among Republicans emerged throughout the year, going back to the May primary where conservative lawmakers won in primaries after tacking to the right against more moderate rivals. There was also a split between Republicans who pledged to oppose tax increases and those in the party who supported a tax increase for highways.
Carter insists that there's no policy divide, and notes that Democrats offered multiple candidates for speaker when they held the majority as well.
"We'll get beyond the speaker's race," he said. "Everyone has the same conservative policy (beliefs) in the caucus and I suspect and expect that everyone will work together in the session."
Beebe is already hoping that his push for Medicaid expansion — which he says could help avoid cuts to seniors in nursing homes — could win over Republicans who haven't completely ruled out implementing portions of the new federal health care law that GOP leaders oppose. Expanding Medicaid and most budget bills will require a three-fourths vote in both chambers, a threshold lawmakers say makes working together a necessity.
"It is not only practical for us to work together. It is mathematically required," Rep. Darrin Williams, who was ousted as speaker-designate shortly before Carter's election, told lawmakers in his last plea to keep his job.
That math is also what may keep Republicans together, though GOP leaders are now preparing for a healing period.
"I just think we're in a good place together, though there's going to be a lot of work" said Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, who voted for Carter. "The vote wasn't 100 to 0. Whenever a vote's not 100 to 0, that means there's going to be some question marks and some hurt feelings and that's where it is."
Rep. John Burris, who also backed Carter, said the disagreement over the chamber's leader isn't a sign of a deeper struggle and that the caucus will be united when the session begins in January.
"We're all bigger than personality struggles and things like that," Burris said. "We know what's important and it's not titles or positions. It's the policy."