MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

February 2, 2013

State GOP leaders wrangle with growing caucuses


— OKLAHOMA CITY — Fueled by tea party enthusiasm and bitter opposition to President Obama, Oklahoma voters in November pushed Republican control of the statehouse to historic levels. Armed now with veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, Republican leaders will continue pushing that they call a pro-jobs, pro-business agenda while wrangling with increasingly conservative GOP caucuses determined to exert states' rights and reject federal mandates.

For the legislative session that begins on Monday, Republicans enjoy a 72-29 advantage in the House and a 36-12 majority in the Senate.

New House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, both downplay any suggestion of a divided caucus, but it's clear the increased majorities come with a broader spectrum of political ideology.

"My hope is that (Shannon) will rebuke his right-wing, ideological fringe, but I don't know if he'll do it. That has yet to be seen," said House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City. "It sounds to me like he is anticipating more fringe-type legislation progressing in the House, and if that happens that should be a concern for all of us."

Shannon's predecessor, House Speaker Kris Steele, drew the ire of the right wing of the House Republican caucus when he announced at the start of his term that he intended to focus primarily on improving the state's economy and business climate and less time on abortion, guns and immigration. That provided a political opportunity for Democrats to join with disgruntled Republicans and derail some of leadership's proposals.

Shannon placed some from ultra-conservative wing of the party certain committee chairmanships and even created a House Committee on States' Rights in an effort to keep the GOP members together.

"We've worked very hard to make sure there is not a fringe," Shannon said.

"When you have passionate conservative representatives, who are more independently minded by nature, there will be great discussion, there will be great debate, but hopefully we're setting the stage so everybody can have a voice, have input, and come up with a really great product."

In the Senate, where Bingman presides over a smaller, 36-member GOP caucus, the divisions within the GOP are less noticeable.

"It's not evident to me in the Senate," said Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore. "And if anybody can keep a coalition together, it would be Senator Brian Bingman."

For his part, Bingman acknowledges the Senate Republican caucus has grown more conservative, but said that is a natural extension of the growth of the party in Oklahoma.

"We have a bigger tent now, and we have a lot of new people in there with new ideas and we certainly welcome that," Bingman said. "We understand the more we elect, the more conservative our caucus is going to be. It's my job to be listening to everybody."

Among the ideas that already have emerged in the House and Senate are bills that make it a felony to comply with any provisions of the new federal health care law or federal gun laws, prohibiting federal regulation of guns manufactured in the state and limiting the activities of groups connected to Agenda 21, a plan developed by the United Nations to help cities and countries become more environmentally sustainable.

Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Arcadia, the chairman of the newly created House States' Rights Committee, said the efforts are part of a movement to exert state sovereignty and push back against federal intrusion into the states.

"It's really a full-court press," Moore said. "We're talking about pushing back against federal mandates, and not just mandates that came out from this new Democratic president. ... These are things we should have been doing years ago. We want to push back at every level that we can."

Moore said he wants to explore ways the state can capture federal money that flows directly to state agencies and have more oversight on how that money is spent. He also wants to create a task force to explore the idea of allowing the state to collect federal income taxes, keep the money in the state treasury to earn interest and then remit it to the federal government on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Rep. Mike Ritze, an osteopathic doctor from Broken Arrow and a self-described "hard-core constitutional conservative," authored a measure in the House that would make it a felony to enforce the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Ritze said his plan is to resist through legislation any attempt to impose the federal health care law in Oklahoma.

Ritze said that while Shannon has clearly reached out to the conservative members of the caucus, it's too early to tell how successful the new speaker will be navigating the ideological divisions.

"I'm encouraged that he is reaching out to everybody on all sides of the caucus," Ritze said. "I think he's a great individual, but I don't know. How can you control 72 egos that are fired up on caffeine or power drinks or whatever else?"