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Amid hopes for bipartisanship and respect, new House session likely to start with a fight

Republicans and Democrats will sit side by side, not in separate sections, when the House kicks off its new session Wednesday morning. As Democrats take the reins after two years of GOP control, leaders from both parties have been declaring that they want to work together when they can, and be respectful even when they can’t.

But they’ll start off with an argument: Several Republican representatives have pledged a floor fight over the Democrats’ proposed changes to House rules, which include a ban on carrying concealed firearms in the chamber. Democrats criticized Republicans for lifting the same ban on their first day in charge two years ago.

“We’ll see how bipartisan the Democrats want to be, won’t we?” said Rep. Pam Tucker, a Greenland Republican who was deputy speaker during the last session and voted against the gun ban when it was taken up by the Rules Committee.

It’s not yet clear how things will go at the State House over the next two years, with a Democratic governor and majority in the House and Republicans holding a 13-11 majority in the Senate. The charged process of assembling a state budget for the next two years will begin in earnest Feb. 15, the deadline for new Gov. Maggie Hassan to submit her proposal to the Legislature.

Still, one dynamic has already emerged: Among the 815 or so pieces of legislation filed for 2013 are a number of bills from House Democrats to reverse or roll back actions by the Republican-led Legislature of 2011 and 2012. Though Senate Republicans have enough votes to block any outright repeals, Democrats say they hope to find ways to modify things like the new voter ID requirement and the state’s new education tax credit program.

“Even when it comes to those issues, are there ways that we can find common ground and compromise?” said Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, adding, “When it comes to voter ID, let’s say, we’re sort of in the midst of a process. It was no ID before, it was lots of options this year, and it gets narrowed down to very few options next year. Can we find a place in that debate through having – I don’t know exactly what that comes out to be, that’s the whole point of the legislative process – can we come out with something that’s a commonsense way to approach this that’s going to feel right to the people of New Hampshire?”

Repeal, replace or sustain?

Armed with large majorities in both chambers following the 2010 election, Republicans passed more than a dozen bills by overriding vetoes from Democratic Gov. John Lynch. They included a law requiring photo identification to vote, a law changing the rules on who can register to vote, a law allowing higher interest rates on title loans, a ban on partial-birth abortions, a law requiring parental notification before minors can get abortions, a tax-credit program for scholarships to private and religious schools, a law creating an “early offer” settlement procedure in medical-malpractice lawsuits and a law eliminating the state’s minimum wage.

With Democrats back in power in the House, there will be attempts to repeal or water down many of those programs. Among others, multiple bills have been filed for 2013 on voter registration, voter ID, the tax-credit program and the minimum wage.

Rep. Lucy Weber, a Walpole Democrat, has filed two bills to repeal laws enacted by the last Legislature, the voter-registration change and the “early offer” law. But she said a third bill, on voter ID, is a deliberate compromise, modifying the law passed in 2012 to keep the ID requirement but revoking a provision that would narrow the number of acceptable forms of identification starting in September 2013.

That, Weber said, “would halt things where they were as of this past election,” and is something she thinks the GOP-held Senate might support.

“Rather than forge ahead with a full repeal . . . I thought that might actually have a hope of passage,” Weber said. “The bill itself is a compromise.”

That’s a recognition of political reality. Democrats may have gained seats in the upper chamber, but with their slim majority in the Senate, Republicans have the votes to block any outright repeal of legislation enacted during the last session.

“There will be, to no surprise, a number of bills to roll back things that happened last year,” said Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican. “The Senate, for the most part, was supportive of those bills and . . . I think there’ll be a good amount of support for the bills that were passed.”

Bragdon mentioned voter ID – “I think the Senate Republicans won’t be too keen on repealing that” – and the education tax-credit program, which he said “had almost unanimous support from the Senate Republicans last time. So it’ll be close, but I think it’ll be safe.”

Still, that doesn’t rule out a middle path.

“I think it’s important to have vehicles that allow us to start the conversation,” Weber said. “The Senate is not the same Senate that it was, even though it is still controlled by Republicans. So my hope is, some of these things we need to revisit.”

First fight

The House will convene Wednesday at 10 a.m., and the Senate will meet at 10:15 a.m. Hassan will take the oath of office as governor Thursday.

The first task before the House is to adopt rules, which requires only a majority in the House, where there are 219 Democrats to 179 Republicans. The Rules Committee on Dec. 20 recommended several changes on party-line votes, including a ban on guns in the House chamber and adjacent areas. The Democrats also want to eliminate two committees that were created two years ago, the Redress of Grievances Committee and the Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification Committee.

Norelli said House Democrats have a mandate from voters to focus “on things that are common sense and moderate,” and “many people were very surprised that there would be guns allowed in the State House or in the House chamber. So when it comes to the House rule that we will take up on Jan. 2, what we will be proposing is to return to the rule that was in place for 40 years.”

Tucker said Republicans won’t be quiet about it.

“I believe that there are members who are not happy at all with the decisions that were made,” she said, “and yes, there will be a lot of discussion on the House floor.”

Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican who defeated Tucker in November for leadership of the House Republican caucus, said he expects a fight over the rules but hopes it won’t set a harsh tone for the session.

“Hopefully, it’ll be a gentlemanly debate,” he said. “I hope. Time will tell. But that’s an issue that we hopefully get behind us one way or another and then move on to the other things.”

Working together

This week could also see a show of bipartisan cooperation. Emergency legislation has been prepared to fix a problem with the Newfound Area School District’s tax cap, with both chambers planning to vote Wednesday and Lynch ready to sign the bill on his last full day in the governor’s office.

Norelli said the Newfound bill is proof that “Democrats and Republicans in both chambers can work together to come up with solutions.”

No one expects the two parties to agree on everything. In the House, Tucker said, the Democrats will control the agenda and “we can only ask the Democrats to listen to our side of it. Certainly, they have the power and will be making most of the decisions, but we will be there to represent the voices of the people, and hopefully those voices will be heard.”

But Chandler and Norelli both emphasized they want to avoid the bitterness and personal attacks of recent years.

“I just hope we’re not going to try to keep score, ‘Now they’re one up and we need to get even,’ because I don’t think that helps anybody,” Chandler said.

He added, “We can have disagreements, and that’s no problem. . . . But how we disagree is what’s important.”

Norelli said she’s taken steps that she hopes will foster harmony. She said she plans to resume regular meetings of House and Senate leaders from both parties. During committee-chair training, the Republican ranking members on each committee were invited along with their Democratic counterparts. And the new seating assignments mark the first time in about 20 years that the House hasn’t been physically separated by party, she said.

“None of these things in of themselves is earthshaking, but I hope they all will be small ways to encourage a greater respectful dialogue,” Norelli said. “I think, when you sit next to someone and find out all the things you have in common,
. . . that it’s harder to demonize that person, and you then tend to talk about policy instead of personalities.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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