The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

January 31, 2014

Questions remain about future Okla. House leader

OKLAHOMA CITY — Uncertainty surrounding who will lead the Oklahoma House for the 2014 legislative session could subside on Monday, when the chamber’s majority Republicans meet for the first time since House Speaker T.W. Shannon announced he was running for U.S. Senate.

Shannon has said he doesn’t plan to immediately step down from one of the most powerful positions in state government, noting that he wanted to ensure a “smooth transition.” He is scheduled to address his colleagues in a closed-door meeting of the 72-member House Republican caucus before the new session begins at noon.

But the scramble to replace him has already started. So far, three Republicans are working to line up votes to become the next speaker. Along with negotiating with the governor and Senate on budget and policy issues, the speaker oversees all House operations, including the hiring and firing of staff and the assignment of members and chairmen to committees.

“Obviously the speaker hasn’t made any announcement about resigning, so we can’t do anything about that as a caucus until he makes that announcement,” said Rep. Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa, chairman of the House GOP Caucus. “Once we have a resignation, then we can move.”

Shannon could not be reached for comment on Friday by The Associated Press. But in a statement, he reiterated that he would work with caucus members to determine his next move.

“Like I said earlier this week, I am remaining Speaker for the time being,” Shannon said. “I am working with the House leadership team and our caucus to identify the most appropriate time and manner for any potential transition.”

Watson said if the speaker resigns, a caucus vote would be held by secret ballot to elect his replacement.

Campaigning to replace him are Republican Reps. Mike Jackson of Enid, Jeff Hickman of Dacoma, and Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City.

Jackson is a close Shannon ally and was elected last year by the caucus to be House speaker pro tem, the No. 2 leadership post in the House. Hickman and Nelson are also well-liked, and Hickman lost to Shannon by a razor-thin margin in the speaker’s race three years ago. All three candidates said they expect a friendly race to succeed Shannon that won’t divide the caucus.

Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Lavern, said it was possible but unlikely that Shannon would try to keep his speakership.

“I don’t see that happening since it’s such a tough Senate race,” Blackwell said. “But we elected T.W. speaker, and we trust his instincts and decisions, and that he’ll do what’s best for his caucus.”

Shannon will face two-term U.S. Rep. James Lankford of Edmond in the GOP primary for the race to replace U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.

And while Republican members say they’re confident the caucus will elect its leader and remain united through a potential speaker’s race, at least some of the House’s 29 Democrats suggested the possibility of a coalition speaker supported by members of both parties.

“If one of these three people want to be speaker and get things done, then why not work with the Democrats?” said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. “All I’ve been able to see from our side is reasonable positions to help all Oklahomans.”

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