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December 19, 2012

Greg Kesich: Legislative Republicans are the men in the middle

If you are wondering how Gov. LePage is going to get along with the new Democratic majorities in the Legislature, you are not alone.

The Republicans in Augusta are wondering the same thing.

So far, the governor has decided to go frosty with the Democrats, refusing to meet with their leaders six weeks after losing Republican control of the House and Senate on Election Day.

The Democrats have publicly taken the high road, promising to work with Republicans including the governor on anything where they can find common ground, debating issues, not personalities. This message was undercut by Senate President Justin Alfond's not-so-private dinner invitation to the governor and his wife, which looked more like an attempt to show up LePage than to make up with him.

Which leaves the legislative Republicans in the middle, where they will have a lot of say in what gets done over the next two years, but not much control.

If they side with the governor, they can stop any bill from becoming law. If they side with the Democrats, they can help pass anything, whether the governor likes it or not. They may not be able to initiate much, but nothing of significance will be done without them.

Members of the Republican leadership paid a visit to the Press Herald on Tuesday, and they tried to put the 2012 election results in the best light possible.

This was a good year for Democrats everywhere, not just Maine, they said. Democrats appeared to have a fundraising advantage and better tactics, outplaying Republican efforts on getting out the vote.

Democrats were able to attack Republicans on issues like the tax cuts even though many Democrats voted for them, said Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, and the media let them get away with it. (Apparently the media's allowing Republican candidates to take full credit for the same tax cuts, despite the bipartisan support, was not a problem.)

If they are mad at the governor for alienating voters, they are not saying it. And they are not soul searching after a stinging rebuke at the polls. But if anyone thinks they are gearing up for a fight, Thibodeau offered this:

"Some way or another, we are going to find a path to bring people together and do the people's buisness."

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz added: "I don't think any of us ran to be irrelevant."

If that sounds like they are keeping all options open, consider their position. Nothing passes without going through legislative Republicans, but nothing really starts with them, either.

The governor remains the prime mover. He will be submitting a budget sometime next month, and passing it will require two-thirds majorities in both houses.

If the Democrats can peel off three Republican senators and eight Republican House members, they can pass a budget or any bill even if LePage doesn't like it. But it would take some significant concessions to get even that kind of Republican support.

How the Democrats will play this situation is just one factor in this three-dimensional chess match that's going to play out in Augusta.

The other factors mostly hinge on how the Republicans play it.

How will their caucuses hold together? There will be tremendous pressure on the House members and senators to stick with the governor and not get "rolled." The incumbent Republicans don't come from Portland -- they come from places where the governor is popular. Overriding vetos is never easy, and if the parties dig in, this could be a hugely unproductive two years..

How will the Republican leaders adapt to their roles as the middle child in Maine's biggest dysfunctional family?

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette offered this to a question about the governor's refusal to sit down with Democratic leadership. It doesn't really matter if the governor and the Democrats get along, he said.

"The issue is, can I work with (House Speaker) Mark Eves, or if Sen. Thibodeau can work with Sen. Alfond. Whether or not the governor is involved, I don't think is that meaningful."

Hanging over this Legislature will be the recollection of what happened last time Democratic majorities faced off against a Republican governor. In 1991, a bitter 16-day shutdown of state government set a standard for failure that hurt both parties.

"That is not the end result we want for the 126th (Legislature)," Fredette said.

Whether anyone gets what he wants is another one of those questions that won't be answered for some time.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

gkesich@pressherald.com





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