Distant Dome: Is There a Crack in the GOP Wall?

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.


The 206-member Republican caucus has shown remarkable discipline this session, holding together to push through legislation that — until this term — has failed.

The 24-week abortion ban is a perfect example of bills that have failed in past years, but finally had enough votes this term to be approved.

You could argue it may have been a tougher fight if the ban had to stand on its own, but it was included in the two-year budget package.

Including it in the budget package allowed everyone to have a little something so there would be enough votes to pass the operating budget, which it may not have without the abortion ban, divisive concepts language and education freedom accounts.

All three of those issues may have had a different fate if they had had to stand as their own bills.

It has been obvious a deal was made to pass the budget with the free state-libertarians, the anti-abortion advocates and the school choice supporters.

The tight discipline also stems from a nearly evenly divided House with Republicans holding a slim majority with 206 members, a historically small majority.

For the party to be successful and pass its priorities, Republicans have had to stick together — and they have for the most part — to be triumphant.

Republicans also receive a little help from the House Speaker Sherman Packard when he denied Democrats with serious health risks — with COVID-19 surging — remote access to sessions to make the majority a little more solid. He said a change in rules is needed for remote access, but Republicans have voted down the change the four times Democrats proposed it.

However, some slight tremors in the Force have been detected this year, particularly over the abortion restrictions when several Republicans tried to remove the most onerous sections mandating ultrasounds for any abortion, no exemptions for rape, incest or fatal fetal anomalies, and criminalizing health providers for performing an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Wolf, R-Newbury, tried to make the changes saying he agreed to support the budget with the understanding changes could be made in the abortion restrictions this year.

But he met significant pushback and it was not until late in the process an agreement was reached to include clarification on the ultrasound requirement and an exemption for fatal fetal anomalies.

Similar attempts to put some guardrails around the education freedom account program, which is monstrously over-budget at $9 million and counting, met similar pushback from program supporters.

Those were little fissures until Thursday when some real cracks began appearing in the wall.

The eruption in the force began slowly over House Bill 1627, which would establish a program administrator position for the education freedom account program in the Department of Education.

Currently the program is administered by the Children’s Scholarship Fund — New Hampshire, a non-profit associated with school choice whose parent organization is based in New York City.

An amendment was added to the bill when it was before the House Finance Committee, to have the education department explore a federal demonstration project to allow children on the Medicaid program to automatically qualify for the free and reduced lunch program without having their parents file the usual paperwork.

Some of the libertarian wing of the party were not keen on the project and first tried to table the bill, but that was voted down on 177-161 vote with about 30 Republicans joining most Democrats.

And then the fun began. A series of amendments were proposed by many in the “freedom caucus” often seeking to attach bills the House had already passed as insurance against something the Senate might do.

Attaching bills the other body has killed to bills the other body wants is a frequent legislative strategy at the end of the session, but not on crossover day when the Senate has to send all its approved bills to the House and the House send its approved bills to the Senate.

The “freedom caucus” has been able to use the tight partisan divide to put its agenda out front this term, helped by Free Stater and House Majority leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn.

The group has had its way for most of the term so far and had to believe it could derail this bill as well.

Knowing what was coming Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, the chair of House Finance, got up and clearly told the House she and her committee were not responsible for what is to come to drag out the session much longer than it needs to be.

“I am not the one introducing these amendments,” she said. “You are.”

First up was Rep. Michael Sylvia, R-Belmont, with an amendment prohibiting local law enforcement from participating in the federal forfeiture program.

The amendment was voted down on a 247-78 vote meaning at least half the Republicans voted against it.

Next was an amendment from Rep. Melissa Blasek, R-Merrimack, to allow Ivermectin, the horse dewormer medication to be sold without a prescription, one day after the Center for Disease Control released a study showing it was ineffective treating COVID-19.

That amendment was voted down 235-95.

Then came another attempt to table the bill, which went down on a 181-152 vote with Umberger giving her speech again, this time really seeing red.

Next up was an amendment from Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, to place a bill already approved and sent to the Senate limiting a governor’s powers during a state of emergency without legislative approval.

That amendment was voted down 241-89.

And then Rep. Barbara Comtois, R-Center Barnstead, proposed an amendment to simply legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, although the last bill on the calendar that day also legalized cannabis.

That amendment was voted down on a 258-76 vote.

And finally Rep. Dawn Johnson, R-Laconia, introduced an amendment that would resurrect what the House Special Committee on Redistricting proposed for the two Congressional Districts that Gov. Chris Sununu said he will veto.

That was killed on a 270-60 vote before HB 1627 was finally approved without the “freedom caucus” amendments on a 204-131 vote as 48 Republicans joined with 155 Democrats to pass the bill.

The amendments which lengthened the session by an hour or more and was similar to what some Republicans did two years ago over anti-sexual harassment training that resulted in a session ending in the wee hours of the next day.

Stalling tactics have been employed over the years, but they are usually used when the other party is in control, not when your party is as happened Thursday.

Will this be a turning point?

Time will tell, but for the remainder of this year’s session — until the final week or two — the House will be processing Senate bills the upper chamber approved.

The House will have less skin in the game and the need to stick together may not be that robust.

The final couple of weeks are conference committees where different versions of the same bill are negotiated and it might be to the Republicans’ advantage to have a united front against the Empire.

But by then, the Force may not be as strong as it was.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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