Nagging question for NC GOP: Can its leaders get along?

jfrank@newsobserver.comJuly 13, 2013 

  • Unresolved issues In addition to the cost of tax cuts, these unresolved conflicts also divide Republican leaders:

    Budget: The tax discord forced GOP leaders to approve a continuing resolution that keeps government operating for 30 more days while they try to strike a deal on the $20.6 billion spending plan. The House spends slightly more than the Senate, and the details of each differ from the governor’s proposal.

    Voter ID: The House approved a measure to require voters to show photo identification at the polls earlier this session, but the Senate has yet to act. McCrory staked out a more moderate position, but with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on voting rights, the Senate may push for tougher restrictions.

    Commerce: One of the governor’s top legislative priorities is privatizing parts of the state’s job creation efforts and a complete reorganization at the Commerce Department. The House worked with him on the measure, but the Senate says it needs more deliberation.

    Guns: A House gun bill became a lightning rod in the Senate, which added a provision to repeal state regulation of pistol permits. McCrory is not keen on the idea, saying recently that he wants county sheriffs to continue to issue pistol permits rather than leaving background checks to the federal database system.

  • 5 key issues Republicans control the entire lawmaking process, but they don’t always see eye to eye on the major issues. One of the major unresolved conflicts concerns taxes. Others revolve around the budget, voter ID, the state’s job-creation efforts and guns.

    Taxes: House and Senate leaders, along with Gov. Pat McCrory, can’t agree on how to overhaul the tax system. The two chambers have approved competing plans, and months of negotiations have not brought them together. The main obstacle is the cost of tax cuts.

— State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a freshman Republican from Charlotte, posted a question on Twitter last week that succinctly describes the legislative session:

“NC GOP control both (legislative) chambers and (governor’s) mansion, yet may not agree on tax reform. Who would (have) thought this possible?” he wrote.

This year, the party took control of the entire lawmaking process for the first time in more than a century. A key question at the start was whether its members could work together.

As the session enters its final days, a distinct ideological divide has opened between the more conservative Senate, led by Phil Berger, and a more pragmatic House under Speaker Thom Tillis – a reversal from a session ago.

At the same time, Gov. Pat McCrory is engaged in a public feud with the Senate, where top leaders have openly criticized his business record, his political acumen and his conservative credentials. The communication between the two is likewise strained, with McCrory not telling the Senate about major initiatives and the Senate returning the favor, most recently on the chamber’s far-reaching abortion bill.

As a result, McCrory is aligning more often with the House, creating an us-vs.-them mentality on Jones Street that is affecting work on a dozen major bills.

“Unified government does not necessarily mean party unity, and I think we are seeing that play out,” said Michael Bitzer, a political analyst at Catawba College.

Tarte’s frustration at this development – echoed by some of his colleagues – is palpable. And even though Republicans will likely reach agreements in the session’s final days, the broader look at this session may be defined by the discord.

“It’s a learning curve, so that’s what I think we are experiencing right now,” Tarte said. “I think it’s a little bit of dual respect (lacking) in terms of authority and responsibility.”

This isn’t GOP leaders’ first political date, said John Hood, a conservative columnist, but they are still trying to feel each other out. “I think some of the fireworks of the session reflect people assuming roles they aren’t used to and would have happened to any set of people,” Hood said.

Another significant aspect of the disagreements, especially between the House and Senate, Hood said, is built into the system and not specific to Republicans. Democratic leaders feuded when they held the gavel, too.

Trying to share power

The GOP legislative leaders came into power in 2011 with bold examples of cooperation, holding joint news conferences and working together on major legislation. The fissures began to emerge a year later, though Berger and Tillis sought to quash any suggestion of a divide at the time. They insisted they be interviewed together and spoke of their mutual respect and said their working relationship was stronger than ever.

Now, the tone is much different, lawmakers and political observers said. The House and Senate appear constantly at odds, refusing to compromise on a major bill about political appointments and delaying budget negotiations for weeks.

In an interview last week, Berger acknowledged that differences separate the two legislative chambers, in both priorities and philosophy. But he said he is hopeful that they will find common ground.

The GOP leaders aren’t singing “Kumbaya,” Berger said, but “we still know the notes and the words.”

A Tillis spokesman did not respond to interview requests. But the Cornelius Republican answered a similar question recently on a Greenville radio station.

Host Henry Hinton, a Republican who supports McCrory and Tillis, said conservatives and Republicans outside Raleigh “are all out here scratching our heads going, ‘Why is the Senate not cooperating with the House and the governor?’ ”

In his response, Tillis downplayed the split but suggested the issue is power. “In spite of the fact that we have the power that comes with supermajorities, we need to give a lot that power to the governor so he can do things differently,” he said. “There’s some discomfort in my chamber, but there is certainly some discomfort in the Senate with giving that power away.”

McCrory has attempted to remain out of the legislative fray for much of the session, interjecting his views only at key moments. From the start, he made an effort to forge relationships with lawmakers, hosting a few for breakfast a couple of days each week this session. But he has also been distracted by fixing what he calls a broken government in executive agencies.

“I’m not saying he was absent, but he was focused on administration stuff and not as much on an agenda,” Hood said.

McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, has dismissed questions that he is playing favorites by working so closely with the House. But his links to the chamber are strong.

His chief lobbyist is former state Rep. Fred Steen, and his budget director, Art Pope, also served in the House. The governor’s office did recently add Nicole Hines, a former staffer to Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, to its lobbying team.

Last week, the governor compared the many issues that “Moral Monday” demonstrators are protesting to Republicans’ situation. “We’re seeing that among my own brethren in my own party, not everyone agrees on every issue,” he said.

McCrory and top legislative leaders met at least three times last week to resolve long-standing issues, particularly taxes, but a consensus remained elusive Friday.

Differences on spending

One of the largest disagreements centers on the size of government, an underlying current in the tax legislation and state budget negotiations. The Senate wants to limit state spending, pushing a budget that it says spends $100 million less than the House and a tax plan that eventually would reduce annual state revenue by $1 billion a year.

The House tax plan limits future state tax revenue by half as much, and McCrory wants a plan that is “revenue-neutral,” allowing enough money to pay for his priorities.

“The difference in the three parties (regarding the budget) was how much they wanted to limit the growth of government,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist. “I think that’s a fairly good example of the differences between them. The Senate comes in a little more conservative.”

The ideological divide extends to social issues, such as abortion and guns. The Senate championed a bill to limit abortions that went much further than the House legislation and drew concerns from McCrory. Earlier in the session, the Senate added a provision to a House bill that removes state regulation of handgun purchases, again going further than McCrory wanted.

The moves have earned the Senate the admiration of tea party groups and state and national conservative organizations but left the House and governor in the awkward position of moderating major bills.

Bitzer, the political science professor, said Berger, a small-town lawyer who represents a rural district, is emerging as the powerful GOP agenda-setter, though he is limited by Tillis and McCrory, two urban-oriented businessmen.

“I think it’s ideology,” Bitzer said. “I think the Senate is much more aggressive in saying, ‘We have the power now, let’s use it and not worry about 2014 or 2016.’ I think there is probably some more pragmatic realism in the House, which says, ‘We don’t need to be perceived as pushing our luck.’ ”

As much as ideology or personality, politics is also a factor in the changed relationship.

From the first day of the session, Tillis weighed a bid for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Kay Hagan, and he announced his campaign months later in the middle of negotiations on the budget and taxes. That created a leadership vacuum for next session, with potential candidates for speaker further splitting the House into factions.

Berger is also considering whether to launch a U.S. Senate campaign. He met last week with national Republican operatives, though few political observers expect him to run. Still, the flirtation is giving him reason to push his fellow Republicans to the party’s right wing.

Either way, the jousting isn’t likely to subside in the near future.

Frank: 919-829-4698

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service