Senate GOP in conflict: Democrats gain renewed level of power amid Republican dissension

John Land

LOU KRASKY

COLUMBIA -- Anti-government sentiment raging across the state and country is creating an unexpected phenomenon in the South Carolina Senate.

Home to some of the most self- proclaimed freedom-loving conservatives you could find east or west of the Mississippi, the Senate is experiencing a fissure within the Republican ranks that's leaving Democrats to make a power play.

The 19 Democrats have learned that they have a renewed level of power as the Grand Old Party divides itself in the state's 46-member Senate between traditional conservatives and the new breed of Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning, said the Democrats welcome the opportunity to leverage the discord among Republicans. For that reason, the Democrats have staked a claim on the Senate's passage of the state's $6 billion budget and the "yes" vote on granting tax breaks to Amazon.com that is expected to lead to the creation of some 2,000 jobs in the Midlands.

"It again really put the Democrats in the catbird seat," Land said.

A similar phenomenon is playing out across the country. Take, for example, the recent Democratic upset in a conservative New York congressional district, or the GOP's disagreement over the voucher approach to Medicare budgeting designed by U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman and Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan.

When Republicans split their votes between factions within the party, in South Carolina and nationally, Democrats can leverage their power by voting as a bloc.

In the state Senate, where members are debating the budget, the chamber's most conservative, anti-big-government contingency, sometimes called the "back row boys," stretched the typically week-long deliberation into a fifth week. They tangled outlawing abortion into the debate, mixed in a heavy-handed slam at North Charleston over rail access to the port and stacked more than 250 amendments on the bill to help block the eventual vote on the Amazon.com tax breaks.

The Senate gave the budget key approval in a 24-16 vote on May 11 and amended it several times before returning it to the House on May 24.

The anti-government and tea party bloc swells to as many as a dozen or so senators, depending on the issue. The phenomenon doesn't play out the same way in the state's 124-member House, where Republicans control a super majority of 76 and rules make it more difficult than in the Senate for an individual member to have as much influence.

On money matters, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican and one of the Legislature's most senior members, argues alongside the "back-row boys." He recognizes that the diversity among the Republican Party could give Democrats more influence, but it's all for the good of the debate, he said.

"I think that's healthy," McConnell said. "The debate and the extended time on the budget and other bills is a sign that the process has become more transparent and that more of the members are becoming actively involved."

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said the Senate Republican Caucus is split down the middle at times. Peeler has worked to push Gov. Nikki Haley's agenda through the Senate and check off items on the Republican's priority list, but keeping the factions together has been a challenge, he said.

"We all started on the back row and that back row seems to feel they're supposed to be the renegades or anti- establishment, anti-seniority," he said. "But the more seniority they get, the better they like the system. That's the first thing. The other thing is, the philosophical differences that some of the members have."

Still, Peeler noted that the roll call votes on the budget show the divide in the GOP wasn't just "from the front row to the back row; it was also within the front row," where the most senior members sit.

Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University associate political science professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Research Lab, said dissension in the ranks among Republicans could mean trouble for the state's dominant party.

Rifts in the Republican Party are more significant than discord among Democrats, because fractures in the minority party don't take priority over the party's need to survive, he said.

"When you move from the minority party, to a competitive party, to the dominant party, those minor fissures grow into giant gulfs," Huffmon said. "This is true across the political spectrum. When your party is no longer struggling for existence, petty disputes -- once kept in check by the need to present a united front -- grow into rollicking intra-party brawls."

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, predicted that dissension will lead to a strengthening of the Republican Party. The senators' recorded votes on the budget will lead voters to separate the true conservatives from the bunch, and that, he said, was the ultimate success of the extended budget debate.

"I think at some point in time, everyone is held accountable for their actions and I think there is going to be a reckoning next spring," Davis said.

All senators are up for re-election in 2012. Like Davis, several of the Senate's self-proclaimed "reformers" are just finishing their first four-year term.

Some senators said friction in the ranks is nothing new.

Charleston Democratic Sen. Robert Ford -- who served eight years in the chamber before Republicans took the majority in 2001 -- said as a new senator he joined a group of black members who pushed for new diversity standards by filibustering and using the Senate rules to block the calendar.

"It's a whole new day with American politics," Ford said. "It's not the right day, but it's a new day. You've got a lot of young members with some bright ideas and they want to be heard. Old school guys, like myself, they're willing to listen to them. The Senate hasn't changed, but we got new players in town."

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Summerville, has been around for a while. He was re-elected in 2008, after serving in the Senate from 1988 to 1997. Still, he is one of the back row renegades and one of the Senate's most outspoken.

"The tension here is, the Senate has certain traditions and methods that some think has served us well over time and some of it has," Rose said.

"Its culture and its rules, in my view, aren't sufficient to deal with all of our demands now and need to be changed. Now the tension is, what changes are needed and not needed. The electorate has changed. The politics have changed."

For a seat alongside the back- row boys, senators need to have a backbone, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said. He is one of the body's most passionate orators and a founding father of the chamber's "William Wallace Caucus," whose namesake was the lead character in "Braveheart."

"William Wallace fought for what was right," Grooms said. "He fought for liberty and in the end, he was disemboweled for those beliefs.

"We used to kid that admission to the William Wallace Caucus meant that you had to stand for principled issues on the floor and then be figuratively disemboweled by the leadership for your beliefs," he said." So, if you were ever willing to stand up for something that would actually cost you, then we would give you a sword and an honorary membership into the William Wallace Caucus."

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.