As Democrats try to regroup, Republicans eye supermajority

As the roll was called at Wednesday's meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Joe Heckstall, D-East Point, yelled "He switched!" when his name was called.

Most everyone laughed, but heads still swiveled to be sure it was a joke. After the past week, nobody could be sure.

Since the Republican sweep of statewide offices last week, three House Democrats switched to the GOP. Those defections, on top of the Republicans' net gain of three seats in the Nov. 2 election, left the House split among 111 Republicans, 68 Democrats and one independent.

It is both the Republicans' largest majority since Reconstruction and the Democrats' smallest, and it puts Republicans ever closer to reaching 120 -- or two-thirds of the House. Getting to that figure is both symbolic and hugely important, as it takes 120 votes to pass proposed constitutional amendments or to override a gubernatorial veto.

The numbers might not change again. As Democrats gathered in the House chamber to elect their officers for the next two years, rumors were rampant that up to three more members could cross over to the Republican side. No new announcements were made, however, and Democrats elected Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, to be their new leader in the House.

Shortly afterward, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, stopped by to congratulate her. Then, in a brief interview, Ralston said Abrams may lose some members.

"I'm not sure that the realignment process is over yet," Ralston said. "We're still in discussions with members of the other caucus, and we'll kind of see how it all shakes out."

Another potential beneficiary of the GOP caucus reaching 120 votes is Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, the Republican who takes over in January. But his spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Deal is not involved in urging lawmakers to switch parties.

"Nathan has not been involved in that process," Robinson said. "We're more concerned in building a coalition to pass legislation that will create jobs in Georgia regardless of whether they're Republicans or Democrats, but we're excited to see people joining our team."

Ralston and others downplayed the importance of reaching 120 votes.

"We're going to get to 120 based on the merits of an issue or we're not," he said.

Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, the majority whip in the House, agreed and called the 120 threshold "artificial."

"It's a much bigger deal that we have a solid conservative base to govern than it is to have an artificial number like 120," Lindsey said. "And we have that. I would welcome anyone who shares our beliefs to join us, but we're not sweating having 111 or 120."

And Abrams, who becomes the first female and the first African-American leader of a caucus in the House, said she isn't concerned if Democrats remain at 68 or drop further.

"We're all elected officials, and we have to decide where we stand," she said. "The issue of Democrats is make sure we stand firm and hold the Republican Party accountable for the decisions they make."

In the past week, Reps. Alan Powell of Hartwell, Bob Hanner of Parrott and Gerald Greene of Cuthbert have all left the Democrats for the Republicans.

While Abrams, Ralston and Lindsey profess that the 120 number isn't that important, Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, certainly sees some benefit. When he's pushing legislation, especially a proposed change to the state constitution, he needs all the help he can get.

"In the past, you were always worried about losing a couple in your own caucus," Roberts said. "But with 120, we can pass something if we have something everyone agrees to. The number we have to go get from the other side is much smaller."

That might not change much, however. Republicans frequently vote as a bloc, but it's no guarantee, especially on controversial issues. That means Roberts will continue to have to parlay votes within his own party and seek support from Democrats.

Also, while Republicans are coming closer in the House to a two-thirds supermajority, Republicans in the Senate are only three votes away from a supermajority. There are 35 Republicans in the Senate.

Democrats indicated Wednesday that they recognize their depleted position in the House but that they still have a role to play.

"We need to get back to the basics and make sure we're giving the right message," Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, said. "The issues are not going to go away. I don't believe my Republican colleagues have all the answers. We don't have all the answers."

Abrams promised an aggressive, but not offensive, caucus and said Democrats will "keep our attention on issues that matter and that's that the people of Georgia are constantly served and not distracted by issues that are not the state's issues."