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Amid bipartisan applause, Chuck Morse takes the helm of a divided N.H. Senate

Salem Republican Chuck Morse became president of the state Senate yesterday, receiving bipartisan applause and pledging to keep the chamber working “in an honest and collegial manner.”

But partisan divisions in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 13-11 majority, were on display during yesterday’s 30-minute session, called after Milford Republican Peter Bragdon announced last month he would step down as president.

The vote to elect Morse as president was almost unanimous. But Sen. David Pierce, an Etna Democrat, voted “no” to protest a procedural rule that bars many resolutions from being introduced; Democrats have been fighting the rule since it was introduced in February, and Pierce said Morse wouldn’t commit to repealing it.

Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat, seconded Morse’s nomination but spent much of her speech calling for Medicaid expansion, which Morse and other Republicans in June blocked from being part of the state budget.

And Sen. Russell Prescott, a Kingston Republican, rose toward the end of the session to criticize the ongoing implementation of Obamacare and its impact on private insurance premiums.

With a special session on Medicaid expansion possible this fall, and the second year of the Legislature’s session beginning in January, Morse will have his hands full. He indicated yesterday that people should expect him to run the Senate like he’s run the Senate Finance Committee for three of the last five biennial state budgets.

“Throughout that process, I sought to be honest and transparent, and to offer each of you an open door to discuss the issues most important to your constituents. . . . As we move forward, I pledge to you that this Senate will continue operating in an honest and collegial manner,” Morse told senators.

Morse, who will turn 53 in October, is a little older than Bragdon, 50, who will remain in the Senate but decided to step down as president after taking criticism for potential conflicts of interest involving his new job as executive director of the Local Government Center.

A former Salem selectman and town moderator, Morse served two terms in the House and is in his fourth term in the Senate. Morse has chaired the Senate’s budget-writing committee three times – in 2005, 2011 and this year.

His first two terms as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee saw him work with a GOP-controlled House. But this year, split control of the Legislature left Morse facing Democrats in both the governor’s office and the House.

He didn’t disappoint Republicans, and the final state budget looked much like the budget he had crafted in committee: no cigarette tax hike, no gas tax hike, no immediate Medicaid expansion (a study commission was created instead) and no delay in the implementation of business tax changes passed by the last Legislature.

After sometimes-contentious negotiations, the budget passed with almost unanimous support from legislators. Both Democrats and Republicans yesterday pointed to the process as a model for how they expect Morse to lead the Senate.

“Both during my time in the Senate and as governor, I have appreciated Sen. Morse’s constructive approach to addressing our challenges, as evidenced by this year’s unprecedented bipartisan budget,” said Gov. Maggie Hassan, a former Senate majority leader, in a statement.

“For Sen. Morse to have been able to do the work that he did in a bipartisan fashion . . . is ample testimony to the kind of spirit and dedication, honesty, integrity, transparency and fair-mindedness that we’ve seen from” the two previous Senate presidents, Larsen and Bragdon, said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. “Sen. Morse embodies these characteristics.”

Larsen sounded a cautious note, saying she seconded Bradley’s nomination of Morse “with a certain sense of hopefulness and expectation. A hopefulness that the Senate will always honor its traditions. . . . An expectation that our new president will live up to the assurances we’ve been given for fair and open processes on the most important issues of our day.”

Among the 24 senators, Pierce was the only one to call out “no” during yesterday’s vote.

He said Morse had not committed to reversing the February rule that barred most resolutions from being introduced in the Senate without a two-thirds vote. Senate Republicans have said the rule will save time, but Senate Democrats say it stifles debate. The House in June voted, 327-19, to pass a resolution asking the Senate to drop the rule, pointing out three House resolutions this year that never got a hearing in the Senate.

“Without a commitment, I couldn’t have voted for that,” Pierce said.

Morse declined yesterday to commit to holding a special session later this year on Medicaid expansion, which could also be called by Hassan and the Democratic-controlled Executive Council.

He did say that, if there is support from senators for an expansion bill, he would ensure a free and full debate.

“I think they’ll make it clear to me where they stand on that, and we’ll follow through on the process,” Morse told reporters. “That remains to be seen.”

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

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