Driven by an anti-gas tax activists and the threat of primary opposition, a stunningly rare Republican majority delivered the S.C. Senate from its year-long stalemate over a road-repair plan.
But one thing was missing from the GOP plan – the blessing of the Senate’s most powerful Republican, President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman.
The night the GOP coalition made its move, the Florence Republican stood silently listening as senators of both parties huddled and argued angrily, away from microphones and recording devices.
Republicans were giddy about the power of their newly found working majority. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were complaining they had been strong-armed into a plan that only patched the state’s crumbling roads for a year, not a long-term fix.
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Republicans have held a majority of the Senate’s seats for more than a decade. But that majority has been fractured among Tea Party libertarians, establishment Republicans and still other Republicans — some former Democrats — willing to work with minority party Democrats to form a bipartisan majority. As a result, the GOP majority often has been an illusion.
Not over the last two weeks, however.
A week after the GOP majority imposed its roads plan, it unwaveringly rejected compromises, even one offered by Senate leader Leatherman.
When Leatherman offered his own plan, it failed. Only 15 Democrats and one other Republican stood with Leatherman.
Leatherman said Friday he did not take it personally.
“They had ideas. I had an idea. Their idea prevailed. That's the Senate. I wish they had at least allowed my plan to be debated.”
The moves signaled a shift of power in the Senate toward a GOP majority, made up of libertarians and establishment Republicans, and away from Leatherman. The Florence Republican derives his power from the alliances he forges with Senate Democrats and a handful of like-minded Senate Republicans, and the many leadership positions that he holds, including overseeing state spending.
Leatherman’s power has been challenged before.
When Leatherman was elected to Senate leader two years ago, state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, warned his fellow lawmakers that they were consolidating too much power in the hands of one senator.
“If you’re looking for strong leadership, you’re about to get it,” Massey warned at the time. Only two senators, Massey and Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, voted against Leatherman.
Last year, as senators complained of “dysfunction” under their new leader, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, called on Leatherman to give up some of his power — either lead the Senate or its budget-writing Finance Committee.
Peeler said Friday that he still stands by that call. But, he added, “it was not that he (Leatherman) was doing a bad job at either. But to do a better job, choose one or the other.”
Peeler chalked up the success of the GOP’s roads deal to the failure of weeks-long bipartisan negotiations to produce a roads-deal compromise.
“If you don't like the way the table's set, turn the table over.”
Arguably the head of the table, Leatherman said Friday he will remain in all his posts, unless the Senate and his constituents decide they have other plans for him.
“I try to do what I believe is the best interest of the state,” he said. “What I'm doing is helping to move the state forward.”
Leatherman also shrugged off news of GOP primary challengers planning to run against him for his Senate seat, possibly with financial backing from GOP Gov. Nikki Haley.
“I've had challengers in the past. I never let that bother me.”
Leatherman appears safe in his Senate leadership role for a while, even if the new GOP coalition strikes “herding cats” from the pro tem’s job description and merges its disparate groups.
(Peeler said there are as many as four GOP factions in the Senate, including one made up only of himself.)
Even if the infant GOP majority wanted to launch a coup against Leatherman, “the votes aren’t there to do it,” said Massey, adding he has heard no rumblings of senators wanting a new president pro tem.
As for that GOP majority, Leatherman said he doesn't think it will be a new source of power moving forward.
Other senators, too, seem skeptical the GOP birds of a feather will stay together.
Still, state Sen. John Courson, a Richland Republican and Leatherman’s predecessor as pro tem, said the GOP-majority has asserted more power recently.
But, he added, the magic behind the GOP majority’s roads vote came down to an issue: not wanting to raise the state’s taxes. “It’s not a social issue. It's a fiscal issue, and one that tends to unite Republicans more than any other issue – period.”
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, put it another way.
“It was an issue that they could all come together on and get political cover,” he said of the Republicans. “If we didn't have March 16 (the opening day of the two-week-long period for candidates to file for legislative seats), you wouldn't have that togetherness.”
Malloy predicted the Senate will return to its usual multiple-personality self soon.
“There will be a total different Senate in mentality after the first Tuesday in June,” after the GOP primary is over, Malloy predicted. “It will be back to standard operating procedures.”