Conservative bona fides may play big role in chair picks
One of the most fascinating changes in Minnesota’s legislative history is rapidly playing out in the state Senate.
Senate Republicans in this year’s general election successfully defended all of their seats and flipped 16 additional DFL seats to put an end to 38 years in the minority. The feat is all the more remarkable because Senate DFLers had held a veto-proof majority in the 67-member chamber heading into Election Day.
The restructuring of the caucus and its chairs by a new leadership team is widely expected to produce a decidedly conservative shift on the part of Senate Republicans, who in recent years have built a more centrist track record than their increasingly conservative House colleagues.
That change, which started to manifest itself in the last year as up-and-coming Republicans exerted influence in managing the election, was facilitated by the retirement of old-guard moderates like Sens. Pat Pariseau and Dennis Fredrickson. In at least one instance, the turnover led to hard feelings: District 49 Sen. Debbie Johnson, who lost the party’s endorsement last spring, reportedly considered both a primary run and an ethics complaint against party officials after her ouster. (In the end, she pursued neither option.)
There is certainly a lot of new blood in caucus leadership. Sen. Amy Koch, who directed the Senate GOP’s election effort, took the reins from outgoing Minority Leader Dave Senjem at last Friday’s post-election caucus meeting. And the most senior member of the caucus, Sen. Gen Olson of Minnetrista, was overlooked in the Senate president’s election in favor of Sen. Michelle Fischbach.
Change in style
In contrast to what many characterize as a long-held air of malaise and defeatism, the Senate GOP’s new guard is expected by most Capitol watchers to embody a more firebrand-style of conservatism. “To be honest, you can be pretty critical of how they performed in the minority,” one Republican-leaning lobbyist said, “and they are aware of that.”
One factor that will shed light on the direction of the new majority is leadership’s choices in picking committee chairs. So far, Koch, GOP Senate staffers and most Republican senators have offered few hints about who is likely to preside over the most influential committees.
One reason for the silence: Leadership is currently in the middle of a significant effort to reconfigure committees and reduce their total numbers. Top Republicans from both chambers are currently discussing how best to align them.
The demographics of the Senate GOP caucus suggest one reason leadership is anxious to throttle back the number of committees: There are currently 28 of them, and there are just 17 returning Republican senators with past Capitol experience. Twenty of the GOP senators to be sworn in on January 4 are freshmen, and it’s a longtime axiom in both chambers that handing gavels to new members is a recipe for trouble, due in part to the controversies and hard feelings it can engender among caucus ranks.
Olson is at the top of the seniority heap heading into her ninth term. Fischbach and Warren Limmer, who are beginning their seventh terms, stand next in line. Claire Robling is starting her fifth term. Behind them, it falls this way:
The Republican victory in 2010 more than wiped out significant losses over the previous three election cycles. Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s appointments had an indirect hand in diminishing the ranks of the Senate GOP Caucus: Three DFL senators – Lisa Fobbe, Kevin Dahle and Terri Bonoff – won their seats in special elections held after Pawlenty appointed their Republican predecessors to another office.
Seniority versus sensibility
Koch and her team are expected to announce new committee configurations sometime early next week, with chair announcements to follow. And though little is clear about where the gavels will go, a handful of selections seem assured. Olson appears to be a natural fit for Education. Limmer, although he’s not a lawyer, has long been a fixture on the Judiciary Committee.
But the prevailing uncertainty has not forestalled an active rumor mill. One possibility mentioned frequently in the past week would place Sen. Geoff Michel at the head of the Taxes Committee. Michel’s name came as a surprise to some, because he hasn’t served on Taxes in the past. Sen. Julianne Ortman has been the lead Republican on Taxes.
On Thursday afternoon Ortman declined to comment on her committee preferences, saying it’s “premature” to speculate. Michel, who has been named a deputy majority leader, did not return a call about his preferences.
The Health Care Finance Committee, which for several sessions has been chaired by DFL Sen. Linda Berglin, presents another potential dilemma. Fischbach has most recently been the committee’s lead Republican. Capitol watchers are speculating she won’t get the health care gavel because of her duties as Senate president.
That leaves Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont as the only Republican with experience on the committee. But Rosen also has a substantial track record on public safety and energy issues. She also figures to be the Senate’s point person on the Vikings stadium issue next session.
“If I get health care or I don’t,” Rosen told Capitol Report, “I’ll be active on health care issues. The same is true for energy or public safety.”
Some believe that Rosen’s reputation for centrism may count against her chances at chairing one of the body’s most critical committees. A number of insiders report rumblings that Nienow could get tapped for health care because he served on the committee before he was defeated in 2006. His conservative credentials were burnished when he became 6th Congressional District Rep. Michele Bachmann’s district director after he lost his Senate seat in 2006 to Olseen.
The committee assignments may prove to be a sore subject with some in the caucus. The Star Tribune reported last week that Sen. Michael Jungbauer, who served as lead Republican on the transportation budget committee, is worried that the caucus won’t give him the transportation gavel because he worked with DFLers on a commission that studied the I-35W bridge collapse.
Reached on Thursday, Jungbauer said he hadn’t received any updates from leadership about his chances of getting the post. One former Republican senator predicted that Jungbauer will be kept in the “bullpen” for the next two years.