State lawmakers turn to creative solutions in speaker fights

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As Republican infighting debilitates Washington, lawmakers at some U.S. statehouses have managed to launch sessions complicated by similar GOP partisan divides or razor-thin margins of party control with a host of creative — if yet untested — solutions.

The approaches differ by state: a delicate working agreement here, a bipartisan truce there. “The commonality is the standing on the edge of the precipice,” said David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

America’s fiercely divided politics are not limited to national government, where Republicans won a threadbare majority in the U.S. House in November and elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker early Saturday on the 15th ballot.

In the states, a combination of factors — including an influx of Republicans from the far right — have contributed to an air of uncertainty in some places as state legislatures begin business. The nation’s shifting political sands left parties in some state legislative chambers with such small majorities that each unexpected departure or death might threaten a scramble for control.

In New Hampshire, for example, the 400-member House convened this week with Republicans holding a razor thin 201-197 majority, with two seats vacant. Slightly more Democrats than Republicans were absent last month when members chose their leader, though, which gave the GOP a bit of breathing room when it came to re-electing state Rep. Sherm Packard, of Londonderry, as House speaker.

“The voters have sent us here with a never before seen balance of partisan makeup,” Packard said. “The only way we can forge ahead and be successful in this environment is by working together.”

In his inaugural address Thursday, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu called the nearly even division a “awesome opportunity” for cooperation.

“And we have a speaker,” he said, referring to the chaos in Washington. “What a great civics lesson and challenge that we find ourselves in.”

The margin of control is even narrower in the Pennsylvania House, where the November election gave Democrats hopes of reclaiming the majority in the often bitterly partisan chamber after more than a decade.

Their 102-101 margin included one Democratic incumbent who died a few weeks before being reelected, however, and two others who resigned after winning election to higher offices.

The House’s top Republican is claiming majority status as a result and has sued to delay filling two of the vacancies. When lawmakers convened on Tuesday to take oaths of office and pick a speaker, the deadlock was broken only when all seven members of GOP leadership and nine other Republicans joined all Democrats to elect Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi, of the Reading area, as House speaker.

Rozzi promised to act as an independent, saying he would caucus with neither party.

“The speakership is a nonpartisan — and I want to repeat that, nonpartisan — officer of the House, entrusted with maintaining the integrity of the House,” he told reporters Tuesday night. “That will be my focus as speaker.”

Bipartisanship was also the byword in Ohio, which saw a surprising turn in its speaker’s race on Tuesday despite Republicans holding a formidable supermajority in the Ohio House.

Though Republican state Rep. Derek Merrin had appeared to seal the deal in a preliminary vote before the holidays, the conservative’s hopes were dashed at the last minute by a deal between more moderate GOP backers of rival Rep. Jason Stephens and the House Democratic caucus.

“I intend to listen, and I intend to be very open and receptive to all members of the Ohio House,” Stephens said after winning the speakership with more Democratic votes than Republican ones. “We represent all of Ohio.”

Political scientist Niven called Stephens’ election in Ohio “mountain-moving,” making a pivot away from the hyper conservative politics that the state has seen in recent years. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s efforts to appease his far-right detractors in Washington rather than to work with Democrats may leave GOP moderates in Washington wanting, he said.

“I think there is a lesson here that there are some very happy Republicans in the Ohio Legislature because they were willing to see beyond their own caucus, and there are Republicans in the U.S. House who, in the end, aren’t going to get what they want because they aren’t willing to take a few steps across the aisle,” he said.

Deal-making across party lines has long been a part of governing, including within state legislatures. In Alaska, state lawmakers have a history of crossing party lines to form majorities. In North Carolina, a notorious yet effective power-sharing deal for speaker was struck in 2003, allowing a Democrat and Republican to preside over sessions on alternate days.

House Republicans at the time included Rep. Patrick McHenry, who is now a congressman and one of Kevin McCarthy’s top lieutenants.

Criminal investigations later led GOP North Carolina Rep. Michael Decker, whose switch to the Democrats in 2003 caused a seat deadlock between the parties, to admit in federal court that he took $50,000 in exchange for supporting Democrat Jim Black for speaker. Decker received prison time, as did Black, who accepted punishment in state court for bribing Decker without pleading guilty to the charge.

This year, it remains to be seen whether unusual legislative deals are functional. In New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania, some typically routine operational issues have been rancorous — or left in limbo.

The all-important vote on Pennsylvania House rules for the next session did not take place, as it normally does, immediately after Rozzi was elected speaker. The House has yet to determine how many members of each party will make up committees, much less the members’ individual committee assignments.

Rozzi promised a bipartisan staff, but nothing has been announced.

Republican House Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, who argues his caucus’ total of 101 current members makes him majority leader, said the choice of Rozzi was “absolutely bipartisan in nature, and I think you saw that trend, kind of, across the country. I think that kind of bipartisanship is good, I think us taking that first step is good.”

Session dates and committee assignments also have not been announced in the Ohio House, where Stephens, the House speaker, was scrambling after his surprise victory to pick a leadership team, hire a staff and unify his caucus. Matters for the chamber — which must begin deliberations on Ohio’s two-year state operating budget soon — were potentially complicated Friday. That’s when the Ohio Republican Party’s central committee voted to censure the GOP lawmakers who joined Democrats in supporting Stephens. Champions of the move called their actions a betrayal.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers divided over proposed rules changes that reflected the dramatically divided House, including grappling with the extra importance of attendance over the next two years.

One rejected rule change would have allowed members unable to attend sessions because of illness to vote by proxy. Supporters argued that the change would help members stay healthy while also fulfilling their duty to constituents, but — even amid rising COVID-19 infections — the proposal failed.

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Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. AP reporters Becky Bohrer in Anchorage, Alaska; Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H.; and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.