The Ohio House passed internal rules and can now proceed with its work despite an ongoing fight over power within the fractured GOP supermajority, which spurred competing claims about who’s leading Republicans there, shouting by lawmakers during Tuesday’s session and even talk of a possible lawsuit.
The evident disunity in what would usually be an uneventful vote on rules amplifies questions about how lawmakers there will function in the two-year session that began this month, which will include shaping the next state budget.
Earlier Tuesday, a majority of the GOP members elected Rep. Derek Merrin, of Monclova, as the official leader of the House Republican Caucus and its campaign arm, which also puts him in control of its spending.
Usually the majority caucus chair would be the same person chosen to lead the 99-member House, but Rep. Jason Stephens, of Kitts Hill, previously beat Merrin in the race for the powerful role of speaker, winning the job with support from the 32 Democrats and a smaller segment of the Republicans.
The division played out again Tuesday as Merrin’s supporters clashed with Stephens in an unsuccessful effort to propose different rules that would reduce some of the speaker’s power and make other changes, including allowing people to carry firearms on the House floor and only having Christian prayers to begin House sessions.
None of those changes were officially proposed before Stephens had lawmakers vote on the rules in a short and fast session. Merrin's supporters accused Stephens of wrongly denying them a chance to offer their proposals. GOP Rep. Josh Williams, of Oregon, later suggested he might consider suing Stephens because he didn't get to introduce amendments as he'd intended.
Stephens said that as speaker, he has the power under the Ohio Constitution to decide what comes before the House.
"I’m the speaker of the House, the head of the Republican caucus, and I’m excited for us to get ready and move forward," Stephens said. "We now have our House in order."
Among House Republicans, though, "there’s a lot of people right now who don’t feel like they have a voice," Merrin said. "Because the Democrats elected the speaker of the House."
The speaker will continue to control which bills are put to a vote under the House rules passed by Democrats and a minority of the Republicans.
Democrats mostly stayed out of the fray.
"As Democrats, we are used to working across the aisle and working with people that we disagree with to get things done," said the House minority leader, Rep. Allison Russo. "And we will just continue with business as usual and being effective in terms of working with people, because at the end of the day, the people sent us here to do their work, not to have these partisan fights."