A schism among Senate GOP Republicans

In the grand scheme of things, very few squabbles in the state Capitol rise far above the sandbox in terms of import.

In most cases, you would be right to ignore the noise and let the children settle their disputes among themselves.

But just as you should perk up when a school board becomes dysfunctional, you need to pay attention to the current GOP schism in the state Senate.

It’s about to take a toll on some of the biggest issues of the session, including GOP attempts to address tax reform, illegal immigration and an $18 billion state budget.

Unlike the Atlanta Board of Education, Senate Republicans are not subject to grading by any accreditation agency — and more’s the pity. If they were, we could sentence them to one-on-one counseling sessions as well.

Possibly you were too busy holding down your own job to notice, but last November, Senate Republicans stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of most of his powers over the chamber — three days after his re-election.

Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers later said they were merely pursuing a long-standing, but freshly understood portion of the state Constitution that declares the lieutenant governor to be the presiding officer of the Senate, but says little about his actual authority over the chamber.

Williams and Rogers wanted a Senate run by senators. (More than a few senators were also ticked at Cagle for the arm-twisting he employed to obtain votes for last year’s hospital bed tax.)

With only a few burps here and there, a regeared Senate machine was moving well enough. Until Thursday. That’s when Sen. George Hooks, a Democrat from Americus, introduced a measure to revisit those Senate rules that stripped Cagle of his powers.

The plot was quickly sniffed out, but a quick move to neuter the proposal failed. A suspicious number of Republican senators — apparently dissatisfied with the new regime — declined to vote.

A tax reform proposal, the centerpiece of the GOP response to a 10.2 percent unemployment rate, was in tatters. The question of whether poultry processors, onion farmers, restaurants and others should be punished for using illegal labor remained unresolved.

Nonetheless, 36 Republican senators abandoned the Senate chamber for a private confrontation that stretched across three hours. The lieutenant governor came and went. His allies let it be known that state Sen. Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia, had drafted a proposal to put Cagle back in charge.

Butterworth had 18 GOP signatures to go with it. The caucus was split neatly in half.

There, the counterrevolution stalled.

A Senate Rules Committee — packed with ranking members of the new order — abruptly killed the Democratic mischief that started the row. But Democrats achieved something important. Their 20 votes had just become highly relevant.

So why should you care? Early last week, Gov. Nathan Deal invited several GOP senators, all freshmen, for a talk.

Some of the tea party-influenced newcomers, pushing for a tax reform measure that contained a harder shift toward consumer taxes, challenged Deal on his promise to veto any bill that restored the state sales tax on groceries. Or raised the cigarette tax.

Negotiations in the Capitol follow established paths and are conducted among established and experienced leaders — if they exist.

“We can’t have 36 different leaders, or however many they have on any particular day,” House Speaker David Ralston complained as the Legislature wilted to a close Thursday. He blamed the chaos in the Senate for the failure of the tax reform measure to jell.

“We have come perilously close to their little experiment over there harming the people of Georgia,” he said. “They need to resolve their leadership issues — and they need to do it quickly.”

Lawmakers will return to Atlanta on April 11 to finish out the last three days of the session. A fractured Senate GOP caucus will have to find some way to come together on agreements hammered out by a leadership that half of its membership distrusts. Whether Cagle or Williams.

Even more important than tax reform or illegal immigration is passage of the $18 billion state budget. In normal times, the Senate side of final negotiations with the House would be conducted by the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and two of the chamber’s top leaders.

On Thursday, Cagle indeed named Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, to the negotiating team. But rather than pick Williams or Rogers, the lieutenant governor named two rank-and-file members — Sens. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, and Renee Unterman, R-Buford.

It was a declaration by Cagle that he intends to be sidelined no longer.