NASHVILLE -- He may have public approval ratings upwards of 70 percent, but Governor Phil Bredesen continues to pick up flak from partymates. He might even -- though its a longshot -- be headed for a surprise legislative rebuff of sorts.
When Lebanon attorney William Farmer encountered fellow Democrat Bredesen on the grounds of The Hermitage last weekend at the state partys annual Jackson Day dinner, he buttonholed him thusly: Governor, I wish I had voted for Van Hilleary two years ago instead of working to get you elected. He couldnt have done the damage to us that youve done. (This is the G-rated version of that part of the conversation.)
Perhaps understandably, Bredesen, who has been known to hold grudges, considered the approach rude; Farmer, the immediate past chairman of the state Democratic party, shrugged that off. I wasnt trying to offend him. I was just trying to be honest and get him to understand. We dont have any business acting like the Democratic wing of the Republican Party.
What Farmer meant was that Republican Hilleary would have been unable to get bipartisan support for legislation pushed by Bredesen -- ranging from some reasonably Draconian budget cuts to the item that really sticks in trial lawyer Farmers craw, a bill that would redesign state workmens compensation procedures and trim existing benefits.
That bill is ready for House action Thursday morning -- one day after Bredesens TennCare reform bill, another potential hot potato, passed the House handily, with only eight Nay votes. The workmens comp bill wont do that well, but the governor probably has enough Democrats lined up in the House -- notably including Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- to go with the bodys receptive Republicans and ensure passage.
Thats if a vote takes place -- and even if it does, theres no guarantee that the Senate will follow suit. In point of fact, Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison), chairman of the senates Commerce Committee and an opponent of the legislation, declined to convene his committee to consider the administration bill Wednesday after Cooper, other Commerce members, and members of a special workmens comp oversight tommittee had sat through an afternoon session in which various amendments to the bill were, one after another, voted down.
Technically, the Commerce Committee, charged with reporting the bill to the Senate floor, was adjourned until the call of the chairman -- a formulation normally used when a committee closes down for good at the end of a session. It would take a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate membership to force a Senate vote without the committees referral. The membership of the Commerce Committee could overrule chairman Cooper, for that matter, but that course, too, is considered problematical.
Opponents of the administration bill are not optimistic about halting it in the House, where Democrats are by no means unified on the matter. As one example, State representative Mike Turner (D- Nashville), a labor official and severe critic of the workmens comp measure, took some shots in an afternoon party caucus Wednesday from fellow Democrats who chastised him for his public anti-abortion positions.
But there could be further surprises on the Senate side. There was serious speculation late Wednesday that House passage of Bredesens workmens comp bill, should it occur on Thursday, would be met not only with Coopers passive resistance but with a rival bill, based on a formula more congenial to organized labor and the trial lawyers lobby -- one which might raise the Bredesen bills multiplier cap of 1.5 (the ratio beyond which doctors estimates of compensation could not be raised legally). Such a strategy could in theory derail any bill at all for the remainder of this session, scheduled to end within a calendar week or two.
(Republican Sen. Mark Norris of Colliervill was meanwhile floating a compromise whereby a raised multiplier would be coupled with a stricter definition of injuries.)
On the score of late-breaking legislation, Memphis Democrat John DeBerry, a state representative who has opposed both measures, remarked bitterly, It isnt fair, keeping the two most important bills of the session [TennCare reform and workmens comp reform]until the very end like this!
Naifeh and other allies of the governor may have their way in the House. But, in the words of a no doubt apochryphal saying attributed toYogi Berra, It Aint Over Until Its Over. One member of the lobbying team opposed to the Bredesen bill offered a local variant of that when he draped an arm around the Senates presiding officer, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, on Wednesday, and cajoled him with one of Wilders own favorite sayings. Governor, he said, let the Senate be the Senate!