Lessons that David Ralston might offer John Boehner

David Ralston is no John Boehner. And for that, supporters of a $1 billion boost to transportation spending in Georgia are breathing a sigh of relief.

On Thursday, there was every reason to fear that H.B. 170, the "big and bold" effort to address road and bridge repair and open the way for state support of commuter rail, would be whittled down to something tiny and inconsequential.

That demands from the right wing of a right-leaning House Republican caucus, driven by tea-party forces, would paralyze the state Capitol, just as we’ve seen happen time and again in Washington.

Yet as we said, David Ralston is not his D.C. counterpart. “But I can relate,” the Georgia speaker said Thursday evening, after the dramatic series of votes that sent H.B. 170 to the Senate.

It won’t happen, but if Boehner were to call Ralston for advice, here’s what Blue Ridge lawmaker might tell him:

“First, remember that you’re the elected leader of your caucus – not its prisoner.”

Back in January, in a first scrum with the press, Ralston was asked if the transportation bill would be subject to the “Hastert Rule,” named after a previous U.S. House speaker who declared that he would move no legislation unless it had the support of a majority of his caucus.

Ralston said he was confident that his Republican caucus would come to an agreement on a measure. But eight weeks later, after H.B. 170 was approved on a 123-46 vote, the House speaker had shifted his tone.

“I don’t know that it ever was a Republican caucus issue. This is an issue that should have bipartisan support, and it did today,” Ralston said.

Seventy-two Republicans stuck by their speaker, but among the 43 who defected were many of high rank – including Majority Leader Larry O'Neal of Bonaire, and Majority Whip Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City.

Ralston allowed the Republican rebellion to play out, but subjected it to a vote by the entire House, giving Democrats a voice.

Word was that at least 10 House Republicans feared a primary challenge if they voted for H.B. 170. Which led O’Neal to attempt to reduce the proposed excise tax on gasoline from 29.2 cents per gallon to 24.5 cents.

"The majority leader and I are like family," said Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and lead sponsor of H.B. 170. "We actually share an apartment together. He has a job to do as majority leader, from that position. He has to look at it from a caucus standpoint, and a caucus position."

O’Neal’s amendment failed on a 77 to 94 vote.

Then there was the amendment from state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, who noted a coming revolution in the state attitude toward commuter rail. The Setzler amendment would have allowed referendums of county voters to veto expansion beyond Clayton, Fulton and DeKalb, which are served by MARTA.

It was a generous power-sharing proposal, given that this Legislature doesn’t even trust locals to decide whether to use paper or plastic bags in a grocery store. Setzler’s amendment lost by only three votes.

“Secondly, you can’t always protect your members from tough votes.”

Cobb County, where transit remains a hot topic, was the source of many a tortured vote. Four Republicans voted for H.B. 170, five opposed.

Among those who voted "no" were state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Kennesaw, a first-termer who had been successfully backed local business interests against a tea partyer during last year's GOP primary. And state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, who may have sacrificed H.B. 218, his "religious liberty" bill, in doing so.

Among those voting yes were state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, a hard conservative – who last month won prominent backing from the House speaker for a measure to overhaul the Georgia tax code.

“Thirdly, the ‘D’ next to the names of members of the opposition party does not stand for ‘demon.’”

From the outset, Ralston included Democrats in his transportation calculations – specifically, state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus. "While we serve in different political parties, the speaker and I agreed to have an open door policy with one another," Smyre said Friday.

Smyre, a former chairman of the state Democratic party and a confidante of governors and presidents, is the longest serving lawmaker in the Capitol. He proved the ultimate behind-the-scenes partner.

When members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus threatened to revolt over the dearth of African-American contractors who share in state road contracts, Smyre quietly assisted in the compromise that allowed the legislation to move forward. Only three Democrats voted against H.B. 170.

The question now becomes whether Senate Republicans are willing to absorb any lessons in finesse from House Republicans.

As of Friday, Senate Democrats had reported no diplomatic outreach from their Republican colleagues. But some lessons are harder to learn than others. Ask John Boehner.