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Moderate legislators are hard to come by these days. By most accounts, last fall’s election saw voters oust most of the middle-of-the-road DFLers in the Minnesota House and replace them with a spate of freshman Republicans elected on a strong right-wing wave that swept the nation.

In the House, centrist Republicans could play a pivotal role in budget fight

Rep. Rod Hamilton, chairman of the Agriculture Finance panel, is seen as a moderate. Hamilton said he struggled with his decision to support the amendment to ban gay marriage. He also sits on the House GOP executive board and will likely be a key figure in any caucus-approved budget deal. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Moderate legislators are hard to come by these days. By most accounts, last fall’s election saw voters oust most of the middle-of-the-road DFLers in the Minnesota House and replace them with a spate of freshman Republicans elected on a strong right-wing wave that swept the nation.

Those remaining veteran moderates in the House GOP caucus, sources say, remember the harsh punishment dealt to the six GOPers who joined Democrats to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation bill in 2008. They also earned gavels at the start of the session, a move sources expect to keep them from breaking ranks in any way that is not leadership-approved.

The polarization of the Legislature has been a major factor in the current $5 billion budget stalemate between the GOP leadership that controls the Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Capitol watchers say. “Unfortunately, we’ve become so partisan and polarized that anyone who even thinks about extending their arm out to get a deal done gets it chopped off,” DFL public relations specialist Darin Broton said.

“I ask myself every day, who the heck is going to break this draw?” a GOP lobbyist said.

But while longtime Republican moderates may not cast party-defying votes this session, many observers think they will flex their muscles in closed-door caucus meetings and behind the scenes in order to work out a deal — whatever it entails. And in the face of a harsh government shutdown, freshman legislators in swing districts or rural areas could be sorely tempted to defy their caucuses to cast decisive votes on a budget deal.

Old renegades earn gavels

Of the six Republicans who voted to override Pawlenty’s veto, only Reps. Jim Abeler and Rod Hamilton have survived the ensuing purge by the caucus and the party. Both lawmakers were awarded gavels in their respective areas of expertise this session: Abeler in health and human services finance, and Hamilton in agriculture finance. While their seniority was a major factor in their committee chair assignments, one GOP Capitol watcher notes that in getting their gavels, the two former renegades likely had to assure the leadership that they would “play nice.”

In some instances, that appears to have been difficult. Abeler, for his part, has spoken highly of Dayton and is known to have worked more extensively with DFLers in creating his health and human services budget than his Senate counterpart, David Hann. “Abeler’s problem is he wants everyone to be happy with him,” a DFL lobbyist said. “That’s not the easiest thing to achieve with the job he’s got this year.” Abeler is unlikely to make the same kind of party-angering vote he did 2008, but he will be more flexible in the negotiating process, the source said.

Hamilton is widely known to have been a fence-sitter when it came to the House GOP’s push to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. When it came time to vote on the amendment in the chamber, Hamilton was the only Republican yes vote on the amendment (other than bill author Rep. Steve Gottwalt) who rose to speak on the floor. Hamilton said he struggled with the decision to support the amendment, noting that his teenage children support gay marriages. Hamilton ultimately offered support for the other side. “Don’t hate the opposition, respect them, for they, too, are standing up for what they believe in,” he said on the floor.

Despite his constraints, Hamilton is a strong rural voice who also sits on the House GOP executive board. The board functions as a conduit between the leadership and the caucus, and he will likely be a key figure in any caucus-approved deal.

While not a part of the so-called “Override Sixers,” most of the other veteran members perceived as moderates also earned gavels this session. That list includes Reps. Denny McNamara, Larry Howes, Bob Gunther, Pat Garofalo, Steve Smith, Morrie Lanning, Dean Urdahl and Greg Davids.

McNamara, whose district includes blue-collar areas like Hastings and Cottage Grove, is another moderate with an independent streak. Late in the session, he spoke out against the timing of the gay marriage vote (though he sided with the caucus in voting for it). As an ally of former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, he has also been known to spar in the past with the caucus’ more conservative members, such as former Rep. Tom Emmer and Ways and Means Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg.

Garofalo, while hailing from the considerably more conservative House District 36B, has also been known to irk the caucus’ more conservative members. In 2006, after his first term in office, his district-mates Holberg and former Sen. Pat Pariseau were said to have found a GOP candidate to challenge him. At the time, Garofalo attributed the move to his votes in support of racino, the Northstar Commuter rail and a dime-a-gallon gas tax increase pushed by Democrats. But Garofalo has fallen in line with the leadership’s wishes, a GOP lobbyist says, as indicated by the base-satisfying education budget bill he pushed forward as the K-12 finance chairman this session. But the four-term legislator was able to work out an early-session deal with Dayton on alternative teacher licensure, and some lobbyists say there’s some goodwill there that could make him an important deal maker.

Lanning and Smith both went against factions of their party this session — Lanning through his proposal of the Vikings stadium funding bill, which was criticized by the leadership and by more conservative rank-and-file Republicans, Smith by voting against the gay marriage amendment. Gunther, also a chairman, admitted to dissatisfaction with provisions in his own jobs and economic development finance bill, including a move to use money from a dedicated Iron Range fund to help patch the deficit. He said attempts to do so would likely fail in court.

Howes and Davids, who chair the Capitol Investment and Taxes committees, are said to be the most pleased with their chair assignments and, while have they have cast votes with Democrats in the past, are unlikely to do anything to endanger their chairmanships. Urdahl has long had a reputation for sitting somewhere closer to the middle of the political spectrum, but he has been chastened by party activists in his district and had his endorsement threatened if he voted for a tax increase, several DFL lobbyists say.

Some frosh are wild cards

With veteran moderates cast in leadership positions, Capitol hands say the new freshman class could be where votes break off in the event of a hard government shutdown.

Four House GOP freshmen broke from the pack early on in voting against the Republican phase one budget bill: Reps. John Kriesel, Deb Kiel, Rich Murray and King Banaian. While most rule Banaian out of the moderate category, Murray and Kriesel were two of only a handful of legislators who also voted against the marriage bill. Kriesel in particular has taken to regularly bucking entrenched GOP politics, both through his ardent opposition to the marriage bill and his public objections to Deputy Party Chairman Michael Brodkorb’s criticisms of RNC Committeewoman and racino lobbyist Pat Anderson for supporting gambling.

“More than anyone I’ve watched at the Legislature, Kriesel really votes with his gut,” the GOP lobbyist said. “It will be interesting to see how that translates to the final budget.”

Rural freshman members may also be willing to cast votes in favor of a compromise in the midst of a government shutdown, as cuts in state aid would be more dramatic in outstate Minnesota. That could entice Kiel to vote for a deal, as well as Dan Fabian, a freshman representative from Roseau and a schoolteacher, a DFL lobbyist said. The pressures will be especially acute if the shutdown keeps schools from starting classes on time in the fall.

In the caucus’ very conservative suburban contingent, Capitol hands note a more moderate tone coming from GOP Rep. Andrea Kieffer, who represents the Woodbury area. Kieffer was hesitant about the gay marriage vote and supports racino. Eagan Rep. Kurt Bills, sources say, is fiscally conservative but also has had frustrations with the legislative process this session. “He understands the importance of consensus,” the lobbyist said.

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