“Lord, I pray in spite of the many differences between them that would under normal circumstances cause division between them, that you would bring them together, Lord, in the common cause of your righteousness that alone can exalt people of this state,” Vineyard said.
To some, it may seem an act of divine intervention would be required to overcome the rift that has emerged in the House Republican caucus.
When combined with votes from Democrats, a handful of Republican House members has been able to successfully defeat emergency clauses on a large number of bills.
Emergency clauses, which are voted on separately from the legislation they often accompany, require a two-thirds majority to pass. When passed, the bill is effective immediately after the governor signs it, instead of the standard 90-day period.
Shortly after the November 2010 election, there were hints that such a division in the caucus could occur, when Republicans picked up veto-proof majorities in the Legislature and every statewide elected office, including Gov. Mary Fallin. Some conservatives publicly worried business interests would be the driving force behind this legislative session, and the party’s social agenda would be neglected.
Since then, however, House leadership and a handful of GOP legislators have regularly clashed.
Some in the leadership said that if the defeat of emergency clauses by Democrats and rogue Republicans continues when appropriations bills start being considered, it could have dire consequences for state agencies.
Meanwhile, the division in the Legislature and perceived lack of socially conservative legislation have spurred some politicos to say challenges may be on the horizon for those Republicans not deemed conservative enough.
On Dec. 6, House Republicans, empowered from the November election with a bolstered majority of 70 to 31, held a dinner meeting in Bartlesville that included several lobbyists.
Conservative activists, including Vineyard and Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee leader Charlie Meadows, staged protests at the meeting, demanding the caucus not ignore certain conservative legislative issues.
The protests were sparked, in part, by comments from House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, that were interpreted by some, including Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, as meaning business issues were to be brought to the forefront, while other conservative issues were to be put on the back burner.
After Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater charged Terrill and former Sen. Debbe Leftwich with bribery, Steele announced an investigatory committee. Terrill condemned it, saying he would not participate until the committee’s work and the testimony it hears were open to the public. Several of the Republicans now expressing frustration with House leadership said a major point of contention is the defeat of a rule proposed by Rep. Charles Key, R-Oklahoma City, at the beginning of the session that would have allowed representatives to assign their bills to committee, rather than leadership making assignments.
Although there had been some barbs traded back and forth, the rift became fully apparent in March when the emergency clause on a bill authored by Steele that would have modified the duties of the state superintendent and state Board of Education failed to get the two-thirds required for passage, meaning the law would not take effect until August.
The following week, the House reprimanded Terrill and Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, with many Democrats abstaining. Reynolds’ rebuke was for interrupting a preacher during a sermon, and Terrill’s was for allegedly swearing and making threats against Steele in Floor Leader Dan Sullivan’s office.
Meanwhile, as pieces of pro-business legislation currently make their way through the House, other proposals, such as bills addressing immigration and open-carry of firearms, are inactive for the remainder of this session.
One bill that passed the House, Speaker Steele’s HB 2130 that created a health-care information exchange, was left unheard in the Senate. Subsequently, a shell bill was created to carry forth some version of an exchange, but was defeated in the Senate Retirement and Insurance committee.
The failure of the bill to pass the second time around was hailed as a victory by many conservatives who see its defeat as a repudiation of federally mandated health care.
Most recently, four of the Republicans at the center of the insurgency, Reps. Terrill, Reynolds, Mike Ritze and John Bennett, were notably absent from conference committee assignments made this month by Steele.
When Democrats combine with the renegade Republicans, there are enough votes to deny the two-thirds majority required for emergency clause passage, and the majority of emergency clauses have failed to pass the House.
Bennett, a Republican freshman from a formerly Democratic-controlled district in Sequoyah County, said he believes the emergency clause is often abused, and that the row between him and the leadership comes down to values.
“I knew when I came up here, there (are) certain issues involved with politics: behind-the-door deals, you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours-type deals. I’m not so naive to not understand that,” Bennett said. “But if I would have known then what I know now, I’m just disgusted by it, and the citizens of this state would be disgusted if they knew what went on behind closed doors. Because they say one thing behind closed doors and then come out and throw a press release out that says the exact opposite.”
The Republican defectors and conservative activists said business groups like the State Chamber of Oklahoma wield too much power over the Legislature.
“The chamber of commerce apparently has way too much influence on the issues before the House of Representatives,” Reynolds said. “It appears the chamber of commerce is far more concerned about economic development than they are about morality or freedom.”
Meadows said he believes that since House leadership is responsible for party fundraising, it is often more sensitive to the needs of the business community, where pockets are often deeper. The end result, he said, is legislation favored by staunch conservatives — such as bans on stem cell research, immigration issues or legislation dealing with Second, Ninth or Tenth Amendment issues — is sometimes tossed overboard.
“The chamber has this notion to improve our economy and to add jobs to the state of Oklahoma, that we can’t do anything that hurts our image with people in New York or Boston or places like that. So anything that they think might be an embarrassment, they want it buried,” Meadows said. “The chamber is really driving the state now. They are really flexing their muscles.”
However, Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, said business groups have just as much right to have their voice heard as others.
“The chamber of commerce (is) in favor of bringing business and increasing the economic strength of Oklahoma. I find myself agreeing more with the chamber of commerce than I do disagreeing with them,” Sullivan said. “To make villains out of the chamber of commerce, which a lot of people try to do, is really off the subject.”
The State Chamber had no comment.
Conservative politicos such as Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart and several legislators cite the defeat of an administrative proposal as the beginning of the House GOP split. Key wanted to amend House rules to allow a bill’s author to select the committee assignment, a task that has traditionally fallen to House leadership.
“I personally believe (the rules) are more akin to something a dictator might do, rather than something a reasonable legislative body might do,” Reynolds said.
Key said he believes many pieces of legislation are not given a fair hearing, and that his rule was designed to do so.
“It was rejected after they held the vote open for a long time and sent members of leadership out to twist the arms of individuals to get the vote that they wanted. It wasn’t really a straight up-or-down vote. And that’s the way it works out here — that’s the way it’s always worked out here — Democrats or Republicans,” Key said. “It’s an institutional problem, and it has to be fixed with rules or laws.”
Sullivan said the measure was defeated by a fair vote, and those fighting against the leadership are trying to subvert the majority.
“The House rules were voted on by a majority of the members of the House,” he said. “It’s a small, disaffected group that wants to play by their rules, not the rules adopted by everybody else.”
If the trend of voting down emergency clauses continues through the appropriation process, Sullivan said, state agencies could be left without funding for the new fiscal year.
“We have a balanced budget we’re required to do, so it’s not a matter of trying to stop excessive spending, or the things we see on the federal level,” he said. “If (blocking emergency clauses) were to continue in the budget cycle, I think there are many agencies that would end up not having any money on July 1.”
But it may not be only state agencies’ funds that are in danger. Meadows said his group plans on actively targeting Republicans not upholding conservative principles.
“We’re going to change our strategy. We’re probably going to devote much more of our resources to taking out these moderate and liberal Republicans,” he said, adding that the group will wait until redistricting is complete and a conservative score index has come out.
Steele and Fallin had no comment for this story.