DES MOINES — Majority GOP senators regrouped Tuesday following the surprise exit of their floor leader and promised to finish the 2018 session strong by finalizing key pieces of their conservative agenda before adjourning this spring.
“We’ve had a great year-and-a-half, and we expect to finish this session in a very strong way, and our caucus is committed to continue to do the people’s work,” said Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, one of at least two senators competing to become the Senate’s next powerful floor leader.
“This building and this state and this country is bigger than any one person, and people come and go from the Capitol all the time. We’re going to continue to do what we came here to do,” added Whitver, one day after former Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, abruptly resigned in the wake of a video posted online Monday that appeared to show him kissing a female lobbyist at a Des Moines bar.
The leadership shake-up came at a critical time of the session, with lawmakers facing a Friday deadline for non-money bills to clear one chamber and a standing committee of the other house to remain eligible for consideration this year.
“I think it brings kind of a dour over the system,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. “In my 26 years, I can’t remember a time when something like this happened to this magnitude to such a high-ranking member. I would say that we’ve either shortened the session or extended the session, but we certainly made the speaker of the Iowa House a very powerful figure in figuring out how we find our way out of here.”
The GOP senators expect to hold a closed-door election Wednesday to seat a new leadership team. with Whitver and Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the top contenders to replace Dix.
“It's an exciting time. We can refresh and start anew,” said Feenstra, who noted that regardless of Wednesday’s leadership selection outcome, the GOP senators “can’t go wrong.”
Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, said Wednesday’s decision would have a “domino effect” within the GOP caucus, regardless of the outcome, with the leading candidates holding key positions coming in.
“We’re still running smoothly on all cylinders,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig. “Everybody steps up and assumes a bit of the responsibility and we keep moving. I haven’t seen any changes.”
Sen. Rick Bertrand — a Sioux City Republican who had called for Dix to step down last year after the state paid a $1.75 million to settle a successful lawsuit brought by a former Senate GOP staffer who alleged sexual harassment and a toxic work environment in a chamber Dix oversaw — said he felt “a little vindication” in Monday’s turn of events.
“Obviously, this is bigger than any guy or any agenda,” said Bertrand, who never felt Dix gave northwest Iowa its due. “I trust my instincts, and my instincts were right. This is about protecting the Republican brand. I think this all could have been avoided if we would have changed the channel back when I said we should have. Character is real, and if there’s cracks and flaws, eventually it comes out.”
Bertrand said Monday’s developments showed how short memory is and how people come and go in the Iowa Legislature, noting that Dix opened the day as the chamber’s most-powerful leader and by the 3 p.m. floor action, his name was no longer on the Senate vote board following his hasty resignation.
“I think this is another opportunity for Senate Republicans to really draw a line in the sand and say we don’t condone this type of behavior, this is not acceptable behavior,” he said. “But I think it also shows the resilience that we weren’t running a Bill Dix agenda, we were running a conservative agenda, and I think that’s what you are going to see down the stretch.
“I actually believe that this helps the Republican brand,” Bertrand added. “I believe in karma, and karma’s a bitch. I think things circle around, and this is good for the Republican Party, it’s a good cleansing, it’s been in the process the last few months. People have got to step up, and I think you’re seeing that in the next few days.”
Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, a former Senate majority leader, said this week’s developments may make the Senate stronger, but he thought majority Republicans likely would have to narrow their agenda on what bills need to get done and how best to close the session.
“Those up for election have a real problem with what’s happening at the federal level and what’s happening here,” Horn added.
McCoy said he thought Dix’s departure would weaken GOP senators’ position in pushing their aggressive tax cut plan, and Republicans likely will have to rely on House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, to shut down the session, given the current dysfunction in the Senate and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ inexperience in her first session as governor.
“I think it puts the governor’s tax plan in jeopardy for the session because I think there’s going to be a whole lot of people in the Senate who will want to get the hell out of here as soon as they can, and they’re not going to want to stick around and fight over taxes,” McCoy said.
“My sense is there are a whole lot of Iowans that are saying what’s going on in the Iowa Senate and that’s the brand they have to go out and run on. Right now, it’s tainted, and that’s a problem,” he added.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, said having a top leader resign mid-session has been disruptive and unusual.
The way things unraveled raised questions whether Dix’s romantic relationship with a lobbyist “may have influenced the majority leader’s thinking on what bills should or should not be brought before the full Senate for a vote and whether or not that relationship entered into those decisions at all.”
“We won’t know until the questions are asked,” added Jochum. “We have brought up the whole idea of looking deeper into what’s really going on behind the scenes in the Statehouse. What happened yesterday certainly raises a lot of questions about what is happening here.”
McCoy, a member of the Senate Oversight Committee, said he has had constituents ask him if any legislation might have been impacted by Dix’s liaisons, which he called a “fair question” for the committee to pursue. “I think Oversight has a role in trying to determine if, in fact, there has been any inappropriate action taken as a result of the relationship. I’m open to that.”
But Republican Sens. Jerry Behn of Boone and Michael Breitbach of Strawberry Point, chairmen of the Ethics and Oversight committees, respectively, said no complaints have been filed, and they had no plans to convene meetings on the matter.
“I don’t know that anything illegal happened,” Breitbach said. “I don’t know why the Oversight Committee would be involved in anything. Everybody thinks one person has control over a particular caucus, but that’s not the way our caucus works. We’ll all leaders.”
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said he hoped this week’s “traumatic events” would cause Senate Republicans to “kind of reset” and focus on economic development instead of “failed” ideas.
“We’re hoping that the new leadership will really put Iowa first because I think we’ve seen nothing but special-interest bills come out of this Senate this year, and very few have benefited the state, in my view,” Dotzler said. “I think all the bad bills have already hit us. I don’t know how many more bad things you can do to Iowans.”
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