Raleigh, N.C. — Tensions between House and Senate Republican leaders – and within the House Republican caucus itself – rose to the surface Thursday in conflicts over the House's proposed permanent rules.
House Resolution 481 would set the permanent rules by which the House files, moves, debates, amends and votes on legislation for the remainder of the two-year session. Its sponsor, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, is House Rules Committee chairman, the right-hand man to House Speaker Tim Moore.
Lewis clearly wasn't expecting much debate over the resolution at an 8 a.m. meeting of his committee Thursday. But he was greeted by a slew of amendments and some pushback from other Republicans over how the House should conduct business.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, ran a series of four amendments that would have constrained the ability of House and Senate leaders to insert unrelated – and often unpopular – provisions into more popular pieces of legislation as a way to get them passed easily.
One of those amendments would have forbidden the inclusion of non-budget policy items in a budget bill.
Blust said previous budget provisions striking teacher tenure and instituting an A-F grading system for schools were not positions the House would have approved. But Senate leaders insisted on their inclusion in the budget, and the House couldn't amend them out of the conference report. That amendment failed.
Another of his amendments would have forbidden the inclusion in conference committee reports of any material that wasn't contained in either the House or the Senate versions of a bill. Blust pointed out that, because conference reports cannot be amended, members are often stuck voting for something they wouldn't otherwise approve, a position that he said undermines the democratic bicameral process.
As an example, he cited Senate leaders' insertion of a provision moving the state's presidential primary back to February into the conference report on the voter identification bill. That change could cost the state five-sixths of its delegates at the Republican National Convention. Even though it had never been debated in a House committee, Blust said, "We had to vote for it."
The amendment won approval 11-8.
But after a recess, the committee reconvened with more members present who are loyal to Moore, who also made an unusual appearance in the meeting.
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, ran an amendment that would have allowed the House as a whole, by resolution, to have some input in setting spending targets in advance of the budget. Those targets are generally handed down by chamber leaders to Appropriations Committee chairs with no input from rank-and-file members, even of the majority party, and are not subject to debate in budget subcommittees.
"This would let the House say we approve, we agree with what those targets are going to be, in advance," Burr argued. "Once we get to the budget, it's too late to change those things."
In previous sessions under former Speaker Thom Tillis, Burr was part of the budget leadership team that set those targets. But after running unsuccessfully against Moore for the speakership, Burr was demoted to a budget vice chairman.
Burr's amendment was ruled out of order by acting Rule Committee Chairman Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, after consultation with Moore.
"For what reason is this not in order?" Blust protested.
"It conflicts with the rest of the rules," Stam said.
"What rule?" Blust inquired, clearly frustrated.
"This is not a debate," Stam replied.
Reps. Jamie Boles, R-Moore, and Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, then moved quickly to reconsider the vote on Blust's successful amendment, saying it would weaken the House's negotiating position in conference committees. The amendment was brought back before the committee and then soundly defeated.
Asked after the meeting how banning new material from conference reports would have weakened the House's position, Saine said it would "tie the hands" of House negotiators.
"When you come into a negotiation room with nothing to negotiate, then it's take it or leave it," Saine said.
Saine referred to the "multiple weeks" of negotiation between the House and the Senate over the conference report on the gas tax bill approved this week.
"We were able to get there because our hands weren't tied behind our backs," he said.
When WRAL News pointed out that the conference report on the bill didn't include any new material, Saine replied, "But there were discussions. It allowed for things to happen.
"There were, within the walls of the conference committee, different proposals floated out there. So, it allowed for the process to work, people to talk," he explained. "Even though I think Rep. Blust's amendment was well-intentioned, I think it would hamper what we're able to do."
The resolution was added to the floor calendar for Thursday afternoon. After a lengthy Republican caucus meeting, it passed 107-1 with no floor debate.