In a normal year, the first week of the General Assembly session is a time when very little is happening.
Legislators wander into the Capitol to start their daily session at a few minutes after 10 a.m., hold a roll call, listen to the reading of some resolutions commending their constituents, and applaud a group of high school students sitting in the visitors’ gallery.
It is a routine that normally can be knocked off in 50 minutes or so before the Senate and the House of Representatives adjourn for the day.
The start of this year’s session in the Senate was different. At about the time when senators would normally be leaving the chamber to go to lunch, they were caught up in an intense debate over the passage of two bills.
Republicans and Democrats battled furiously, resorting to the hostile speeches and questions you would expect to hear on the last day of a session, not the opening day. Even worse, the lawmakers were late for their luncheon appointments.
What was going on here?
It was the latest round in a fight that started among Republican senators nearly 14 months ago.
Shortly after the 2010 general election, when Georgia voters had chosen Casey Cagle for another term as lieutenant governor, a faction of GOP senators decided they wanted to run the chamber instead of Cagle. They pushed through rules changes that took away many of Cagle’s powers and gave them to a committee headed by Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and President Pro Tem Tommie Williams (R-Lyons).
You can’t run something by committee, as the old saying goes, and that turned out to be true in the 2011 session. The divided Senate struggled to get anything done because of the ongoing squabble between the two factions.
In the final days of the session, a couple of education bills sponsored by Rogers and Williams were passed in the House, but with some minor changes in the wording that required agreement from the Senate. Cagle, who still presides over Senate debate, declined to bring the bills up for a vote and kept them from being passed.
There was an effort after last year’s session to negotiate a settlement between the warring camps, but nothing came of it. With a new session approaching, rumors were flying that Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry) would challenge Williams for the president pro tem’s position and try to put the Senate under Cagle’s control again.
When the Senate convened on Monday, Rogers and Williams made their move. They bypassed Cagle and brought up for final adoption the bills he had blocked at the end of last year’s session.
Senate Democrats, who don’t like the way they’ve been treated by the Republican majority, refused to go along with the tactic and launched the angry floor attacks on the two bills. It took a long time to sort all of this out before votes could finally be taken on the measures.
Gov. Nathan Deal, obviously troubled at the prospect of another session dominated by this in-fighting, held a long meeting with key Republican senators to try to broker some kind of peaceful resolution. By the time the meeting ended, Deal thought he had a deal.
When Senate Republicans held a caucus Tuesday morning to discuss what the governor had worked out, the deal fell apart and the bickering resumed.
We have thus begun a new session with no solution in sight to fix a fractured Senate. If Tolleson really plans to challenge Williams for the leadership, he has not shown his cards yet. There has been no indication from Deal as to what he will do next, although governors usually do not like it when legislators thumb their noses at them.
One lawmaker who has known Deal for a while put it this way: “He is very slow to anger – but when he reaches that point where he loses patience, watch out. You don’t want to be around him.”
Will Deal go ballistic and start knocking heads together to get this resolved? Or will the Senate continue to muddle along with all of its factions fighting each other? The answers to those questions could determine whether anything gets done in the latest session of the General Assembly.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)