Indiana's GOP Leaders Cautious Amid Supermajorities

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The Indiana GOP now has a stranglehold on state government, with supermajorities in both chambers of its General Assembly and conservative Republican Mike Pence headed to the governor's mansion. But Republican lawmakers are preaching caution and a need for increased bipartisanship as they handle unchecked legislative power for the next two years. Will they be able to resist the urge to shove through their agenda?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In so many ways our country seems politically divided. Nevertheless, last month's election left 11 states controlled by supermajorities, meaning one party occupies the governor's mansion and owns the overwhelming majority in the legislature. Let's get a sense for the dynamic in one of these states - Indiana. Republicans seem in command. And yet despite their new leverage, Indiana's Republican lawmakers are preaching caution and a need for increased bipartisanship. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Brandon Smith reports.

BRANDON SMITH, BYLINE: During the last two legislative sessions, Democrats here employed walkouts to block or delay passage of controversial legislation in the Republican-controlled Indiana House. But now that tactic will no longer work. With Republicans controlling 69 seats in the chamber, they have more than the two-thirds necessary to prevent any such effort.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE BRIAN BOSMA: I want to meet with her very soon. So...

SMITH: Speaking with legislators and their families at a gathering following the first official day of the new session, House Speaker Brian Bosma stands out. At six-foot-four, he's physically imposing and he's been his party's leader in the House for a dozen years and says he won't run roughshod over the Democrats.

BOSMA: Someone might step into the role and say, yeah, now's my chance. But I've been here long enough and been in the minority most of that tenure to understand that everyone is elected independently to participate in the process here, so we will work with those who are willing.

SMITH: But Bosma's caucus is bigger than any the Republicans have had in 40 years. Longtime Hoosier political analyst Ed Feigenbaum says when Republicans gained a supermajority back in 1972, they lost it only two years later because of outside political forces.

ED FEIGENBAUM: 1972 was the Nixon landslide and 1974 was the reaction to Watergate.

SMITH: Feigenbaum says the new supermajority is built largely on the state's shifting demographics and redrawn districts. But he's not sure that will make holding onto the supermajority any easier.

FEIGENBAUM: When you're dealing with more than 60 races, you know, of which maybe 45 may be truly potentially competitive, that's a lot of money to have to raise in order to defend all of those seats.

SMITH: Still, until those elections come around again in two years, you could argue that Democrats in the legislature might be functionally irrelevant. But House Minority Leader Scott Pelath argues just the opposite. He says because of the numbers, Republicans may need to reach out to Democrats even more than in the past.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE SCOTT PELATH: I think Speaker Bosma, if he doesn't already know it, realizes he's going to have some of his own divisions within his own caucus. Just because there's a lot of members from one particular party doesn't mean they don't have some intense disagreements.

SMITH: There's one legislator here in the House who remembers what it was like to be in a superminority. South Bend Democrat Pat Bauer says despite the appearance of having no power, the minority can still effect change.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE PAT BAUER: You offer your ideas on the floor, you offer them at committee, you repeat it in the Senate if you can, and just get the people to know.

SMITH: So even with supermajorities in both houses, it isn't expected that there will be a lot of controversial legislative proposals. That's in part because over the past two years, Republicans have already passed a Right to Work bill, massive education reform measures, and legislation halting funding to Planned Parenthood. They might fear that pushing the same kind of extreme proposals would just make their supermajority short-lived.

For NPR News, I'm Brandon Smith in Indianapolis.

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