The rap on House Speaker Kris Steele -- well, one of the raps -- is that he's soft. Too nice. Not the butt-kicker necessary to be a successful speaker.
In fact, this summer's out-of-session, off-the-record chatter often veers into speculation over whether the Shawnee Republican eventually will face a challenge from his party's ultra-right flank.
The speaker, of course, serves at the pleasure of a majority of the House members -- both Republicans and Democrats -- and can be removed any time.
There aren't enough Democrats (31) to override a veto, but there are enough -- if coupled with dissident GOPers -- to topple a speaker and the current House leadership.
So, will Mr. Nice Guy survive his 12th and final year (he's term-limited), still wielding the speaker's gavel?
Nothing is etched in stone, but it wouldn't surprise me if the hard-right makes a run at Steele. They probably can't oust him (more on that later) but they can create headaches and draw attention to the fact they don't think he's sufficiently devoted to their social agendas and worldviews.
Remember before the most recent session when Steele urged House members to elevate economic issues above wedge issues (think immigration, abortion, religion, etc.)? It infuriated the theocrats-in-waiting and even prompted protests outside a House Republican retreat in Bartlesville.
There are even fewer House members in the wingnut brigade than in the Democratic caucus -- perhaps as many as two dozen, depending on the issue, reflecting the rants of such groups as Birthers, Tenthers, Truthers, theocrats, xenophobes and Tea Partiers.
But they don't play by the old GOP rules -- Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. They openly challenge the speaker and leadership in floor debate, vote against the speaker's priorities and refuse to be good, stoic soldiers when they don't get their way.
Steele survived the 2011 session -- and even flourished -- by successfully marginalizing the zealots.
Three, in fact, were reprimanded by the full House for their conduct -- one (Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore) for allegedly threatening to physically harm the speaker.
Reprimand is a rare sanction in the state House. The fact it was deployed at all suggests Steele recognized the need to assert his authority and demonstrate his political strength if he were to continue leading the rest of his 70-member Republican caucus.
Where Steele has been particularly savvy is in working with Democrats, who were more united during House Minority Leader Scott Inman's first session as leader than in any since the GOP took control of the House in 2005.
Democrats were allowed to speak. Democratic bills were heard and approved. Democrats were given better-than-they-had-a-right-to-expect committee assignments.
It wasn't a carefree session, to be sure. Democrats often flexed what little muscle they had by joining with the ultra-right crew to block "emergency" clauses that would have enabled some legislation to take effect immediately, rather than months after the session.
But some tasks that were expected to be contentious turned out to be silky smooth -- especially the once-a-decade redistricting process.
While the highly partisan Senate plan now is being challenged in court, Democrats and Republicans alike hailed the House's bipartisan process and result.
Steele's decisions this summer indicate he's keenly aware a challenge could come from his ultra-right flank at any time. And it's obvious he is an increasingly savvy vote counter: He knows his GOP detractors have no hope of ousting him without the support of a vast majority of House Democrats.
So, for example, Steele wisely appointed a higher percentage of Democrats to two special joint House-Senate committees -- one studying state water policy, the other focusing on the impact of the new federal health care act -- than their numbers in the House would dictate.
Democrats hold fewer than one-third of all House seats, but Steele gave them three of the eight House slots on the water panel and two of six on the health care committee.
Moreover, Inman was awarded one of three House seats on the Task Force for the Study of State Tax Credits and Economic Incentives -- the panel that's taking a hard look at the $5 billion or so in tax breaks, much of it corporate welfare that never created a single job.
This is one of the Legislature's most important tasks, given the state's ongoing budget crisis. The state can't continue to give away hard-earned tax dollars to special interests when it can't reasonably fund vital state services such as common education with available tax revenue.
Democrats, of course, would prefer they had a majority in the House and Inman were the speaker. But given the bleak reality of their numbers, Steele's graciousness may be just enough incentive to keep them from joining with the hard right to turn the House on its head.
Steele's task isn't easy. He's not only trying to keep the ultra-conservatives from revolting, but he's also must answer to the state's deep-pocketed special interests -- headed by the State Chamber -- that pour tons of money into lobbying and campaign contributions.
Lest anyone think otherwise, Steele is a social and fiscal conservative -- but he's not loony, like some in what often is referred to sanctimoniously as the Liberty Caucus. Still, it all too often seems Steele is willing to roll over for big money interests, trading what he surely knows in his heart of hearts is bad public policy for incremental change in areas of his special interest -- like families, children and corrections.
His penal reform package last session wasn't perfect -- hard-liners in the Senate forced changes -- but it was a huge step in the right direction. And he's continuing efforts to transform a system that is nearly bankrupting the state by throwing too many petty criminals behind bars, rather than just the most dangerous.
My guess is Steele survives as speaker through 2012. Whether he comes close to accomplishing what his heart truly desires is far less certain.
-- (Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net)
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