The first glimpse of how strong a grip House Speaker T.W. Shannon has over the largest-ever House GOP caucus should be shown Monday, the first day of the legislative session.
Members of the House of Representatives are expected to take up approving rules that will govern the lower chamber for the 54th Oklahoma Legislature, which will cover the next two years. Several conservative House Republicans are expected again to seek getting a rule passed that would let all or most bills filed by members to have a committee hearing. House GOP leadership now determines which bills will be taken up and which will be given a hearing.
“I don't see that as being an overwhelming outcry from members,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “There may be some but I don't think that's the majority decision to do that.”
Shannon, elected speaker last month, downplays talk that a fringe element exists among House Republicans.
“We've worked very hard to make sure there's not a fringe, that everybody within our 70-plus member caucus has a voice at the table,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “While certainly there are differences of opinion, I don't pretend that we're always going to agree — but my goal is that there wouldn't be a fringe element, that every voice is represented. They represent 37,000 people and they should have a seat at the table.”
Is GOP divided?
Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, and other House Democrats insist a contentious group exists among House Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 72-29.
Bills need 51 votes in the House to pass.
“Anytime you have 72 members in the House of Representatives … it is very difficult to herd those cats and even get to 51 with those 72,” Inman said, noting that House Democrats had difficulties when they had 70 members just 20 or so years ago.
Inman said the House Republican caucus “is deeply divided along an ideological fault line.”
Inman said House Democrats are willing to work with Shannon and other Republicans on policies “to get beyond those ideological arguments, those fringe elements of the Republicans caucus and to find solutions.”
“Speaker Shannon and I are good friends and we have a great working relationship,” Inman said. “He's a smart man who I think overall has got a great idea to where the state of Oklahoma needs to go. My hope though is that he will rebuke his right-wing ideological fringe but I don't know if he'll do it. That remains to be seen.
“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 because you don't improve the state's image nationwide,” Inman said.
Inman said the 29 House Democrats are willing to work with Shannon on measures dealing with issues to improve the state.
“We'll help you get to 51,” Inman said to Shannon last week. “Because at the end of the day, we've all got to live together and hopefully cast off the fringe elements of both sides of the aisle and move this state forward.”
Shannon has said his goal is to be a voice of reason and to continue to push for a conservative agenda that also provides for economic growth in the state.
Shannon, the first black Speaker of the House and, at 34, the youngest to serve in the powerful post, said he will work to ensure that all voices are heard in his caucus.
Shannon said he hopes to pass legislation to improve Oklahoma's economy, and is aware that members of his caucus have a wide range of priorities that at times will be counter to the majority of the membership.
Shannon said the increase in Republican legislators in the House and Senate after November's election indicates voters want limited government and economic prosperity in the state.
Former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, struggled during his two years in the leadership post with constitutional conservative members who last year resorted to working with House Democrats to derail or at least mire down the GOP leadership's measures. Some in that faction of the House Republican caucus take credit for Shannon's election last year as speaker-elect. Steele's preferred successor lost in a close caucus vote.
The feud in the House GOP chamber caucus has been characterized as a difference between those who support issues by The State Chamber, the largest group representing businesses, and constitutional conservative lawmakers who have been labeled anti-chamber.
“That oversimplifies what is a complex menagerie of thoughtful, passionate conservatives,” Shannon said. “When you have passionate, conservative representatives, they're more independently minded by nature. So yeah, there'll be great discussion, there'll be great debate, but hopefully we're setting the stage so that everybody can have a voice, have an input and come up with a really great product.”
Shannon said the Republican House caucus is more diverse than the House members who were elected in decades past. Most were men, older than 45 and came from rural areas.
“That's not the case anymore,” he said. “We've got members in the middle 70s all the way down to 21-year-olds and we've got everything in between. I think that's a benefit to the people of Oklahoma.
“I don't think there's a fringe element,” Shannon said. “I don't think there's a split. There are certainly differences of opinion.”