By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Wyoming House Republicans have reached agreement on rule change Monday that represents an attempt to find middle ground and bridge a faction shift in the state GOP.
Supporters of the change – which raises the threshold for House members to override the speaker or majority floor leader from a simple majority vote to two-thirds – say it’s an important compromise.
“The struggle that I think has brought this about, I think is a very real reality,” Majority Floor Leader Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett said in supporting the change. “If you look at the elections that have been happening in this current legislature, they were very close as far as one party is concerned.
“I believe that was the catalyst that drove the desire to make a more balanced leadership representation.”
The House split was most clearly reflected in the Republican caucus elections for House speaker and majority floor leader in November, both tight races that elected one from the more conservative wing and another from the moderate branch of the Republican Party.
Neiman is a member of the hardline conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus while House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, is a veteran legislator who typically supports more moderate legislation.
Nuts & Bolts
The rule change requires a two-thirds vote to override the speaker of the House and take a bill out of his drawer.
It also requires a similar two-thirds vote to usurp the majority floor leader and put a bill in the following day’s general file schedule, an action that often determines whether a bill lives or dies, especially toward the end of a legislative session.
It is the responsibility of the majority floor leader to set the order bills will be discussed each day.
While both actions usually only required a simple majority vote, many thought the threshold was higher anyway, Neiman said.
Previously, the only time a two-thirds vote was needed to change the order of bills was on the day the majority floor leader sets the general file, requiring a suspension of the rules to override.
It also has always needed a two-thirds vote to remove the speaker or a member of the House.
Heading Off Chaos
Even though it was already believed to be the status quo, Neiman warned that this new knowledge would create chaos and open up “a can of worms” within the House body.
“The majority floor leader does not want any more authority than what he has had,” Neiman said, “but my ask was that he would not have any less than what he was perceived to have previously.”
The rule change comes in response to an earlier proposal that recommended solidifying the simple majority. The Freedom Caucus felt this was a potential attack on Neiman’s powers.
“Because of the (proposed) rule changes, there was a potential undermining or removing of the ability of the majority floor leader to be able to retain legislation in his drawer,” Neiman said.
That’s when the determination was made to provide equity to both positions with the two-thirds requirement.
The amendment proposed by Neiman passed fairly easily in the House on a 36-26 vote.
Last week, lawmakers on the House Rules Committee rejected separate measures for each leadership position that would have raised the threshold to two-thirds.
There was skepticism that there would be support for one leader but not the other, creating a disproportionate balance of power among House leadership.
But by Friday, Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told Cowboy State Daily a compromise was in the works.
A few of legislators who voted against the proposals in the committee voted for Monday’s change, showing an effort to appease the party’s more conservative wing.
Sommers never spoke in support of the rule change, but described the amendment as “a good faith” effort to find a compromise.
A Matter Of Respect
Many portrayed the compromise as an effort to respect the desires of Neiman and his fellow hardline conservatives.
“About half the room trusts the speaker, about half supports the majority floor leader,” said Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper.
Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper, disagreed and said most House members respect both leaders, bringing a few cheers of support from the body.
For Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, it was a matter of respecting leaders enough to not abuse their power. He spoke against the rule change, saying although he may not always agree with leaders, he always respects their decisions.
“It’s all about respect,” Brown said. “It’s purely about the respect for the officers this body has duly elected.”
Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan, said a two-thirds majority makes it more difficult to disrespect “the men that lead us,” while Bear said a supermajority will bring the House back to an era when respect was deeply held for the body’s leaders.
Support And Opposition
Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, has consistently spoken against the rule change in committee and did so again on the House floor Monday. He said the changes give Sommers and Neiman universal veto power over which bills get heard.
“This is a big change to the status quo,” he said.
An effort to suspend the rules to take a bill off the floor leader’s desk was attempted last year when Bear wanted to bring the Fairness In Women’s Sports Act to the House floor.
The effort died on a 37-21 vote. A two-thirds vote would have been required in this scenario because it took place on the last day of the session.
Stith said approving the change would give the speaker and floor leader universal veto power. A vote to support would not be a conservative measure and more akin to authoritarianism.
Sommers reprimanded Stith for the nature of his comment.
Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, also spoke against the rule change and said the current rules allow for a balance of power.
Steve Harshman, a Republican legislator from Casper, agreed and mentioned how Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure advocats against votes that aren’t a simple majority. He implored his colleagues in the House to not fix something that’s not broken.
“We elected the speaker and the majority floor leader in caucus to serve us,” he said. “That’s what leadership is. We didn’t elect the king and his count.”
Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, sees the rule change as an element of compromise, “which sometimes we need to do more of.”
Neiman said he is working to bring the factions within his party together.
“We simply brought this to provide balance and to prevent someone from saying we’ve got the upper hand,” he said.