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GOP Lawmakers Resolve to Run Things Their Way

Republicans have their first chance in modern times to drive Tennessee public policy in directions entirely of their choosing.

Republicans this holiday season are skipping conciliatory make-nice gestures toward Democrats and dispensing with the obligatory, hollow-ringing promises of bipartisanship in the New Year.

With heavy majorities in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly, GOP legislators are resolving that 2011 will be a year in which they go their own way. And as far as Democrats are concerned, Republicans say they’re free to come along for the ride, sit back and passively watch the bill traffic go by, or, if they prefer, lay down in the road and get run over.

For the first time since the post Civil War era, Republicans will manage both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, giving them the chance to drive public policy in directions of their choosing.

But Speaker-to-be Beth Harwell hasn’t indicated she is all that interested in entertaining a lot of new initiatives that go beyond the nuts-and-bolts of building a balanced state budget, probing for government spending cuts and, if necessary, legislatively enabling Gov.-elect Bill Haslam’s economic recovery and job-creation agenda.

“My New Year’s resolution for the Legislature is to limit the number of resolutions,” said the Nashville Republican, who is set to become the first female House speaker in the state, and as such, one of the most powerful women in Tennessee political history.

In the last two years, lawmakers have introduced nearly 3,500 resolutions, many of them congratulating a retirement, memorializing a death or recognizing a school for a noteworthy achievement. Others resolutions have made additions to Tennessee’s growing list of state songs and marked days on the calendar for special events, like “NASCAR Day.”

Harwell said she’s not really been a fan of the nonbinding posturing and time-consuming fanfare in the past. “As I’ve said before, a resolution from the General Assembly should mean a great deal, and we want to make sure those Tennesseans are honored for something very significant for the state,” she said.

Other Republicans resolve to take full advantage of their turn behind the wheel in state government — and unsolicited Democratic attempts at backseat driving will be paid little heed.

“We don’t have to cater to the left anymore. This is our chance to do things and show people there is a true difference in the two parties,” said Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who vows next year to “just show what we’re made of.”

One of the issues on which Republicans hope to flex their superior political might next year is illegal immigration. GOP legislators spent much of the last year publicly admiring Arizona’s controversial immigration law, and expect to propose a Tennessee version next year. Although how it’ll fit with the bare bones, no-frills legislative agenda Harwell suggests she prefers in the House is an open question.

Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, the point man on several pieces of legislation targeting illegal immigrants, said he plans to “work collectively” with members of the House and Senate, as well as the executive branch, to pass what he regards as meaningful legislation that all in the party can take pride in supporting.

His GOP counterpart in the House, Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, promises next year to make sure her caucus members “have what they need to have a successful legislative session.”

After watching voters in November throw out a handful of established lawmakers with the letter “D” affixed to their names, remaining Democrats have their work cut out for themselves trying to stay politically relevant.

They head into next year’s lawmaking session with 14 fewer members than at this time last year. Democrats hold only 34 seats in the 99-member legislative body.

“My caucus is sort of in a new position. It’s sort of a shot in the dark to see what that resolution might be,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the newly selected leader of the House Democratic Caucus.

So Fitzhugh’s resolution is to find a stronger, more strategic method of promoting his party’s message, such as detailing what the caucus has accomplished, “especially from a financial standpoint,” said the Ripley Democrat.

Fitzhugh also vows “to have a good open session with a lot of debate and always keeping the people first in what we do.”

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to resolve to write better bill titles so opponents have a harder time voting against them, joked Chattanooga Sen. Andy Berke, a high-ranking member of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

But Berke’s real New Year’s resolution is to follow the legacy of outgoing Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen who will leave office Jan. 15 when he is termed out of office, he said.

Specifically, Berke resolves “to continue much of the progress we made under Gov. Bredesen under a restrictive budgetary climate.”

Lawmakers will officially kick off the next legislative session — and their New Year’s resolutions — on Jan. 11.

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