- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The race to be Louisiana’s next House speaker is becoming a bit of a partisan brawl, with the governor-elect backing a Democrat in the majority Republican chamber and GOP members split on whether they should vote as a bloc.

The divide is raising questions about whether the leadership haggling might make it more difficult for lawmakers to work together in a February special legislative session to fix the state’s deep budget problems.

While senators seem to have largely coalesced around the re-election of Republican John Alario as Senate president, the House speaker’s job is a competition between two men, Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, and Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

“I have a preference for Walt Leger,” Democratic Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards said this week. “Walt Leger is a very, very capable and talented young man.”

The House speaker chooses the chairmen, makes committee assignments and sets the calendar. Those decisions can determine whether bills pass or fail.

Governors traditionally have a heavy hand in determining who will be speaker. But with a majority Republican chamber, it’s unclear if a Democratic governor’s attempt to meddle in the selection will carry less sway.

Both Leger and Henry suggest they have the votes to win the competition if it comes to a head-to-head vote on Jan. 11, the day new terms begin and lawmakers select their leaders. But no one’s releasing a full list of their commitments, and many lawmakers have been reticent to commit publicly to who they’re supporting.

A speaker needs at least 53 votes in the 105-member chamber. The House has 61 Republicans, 42 Democrats and two independents.

“I will have the votes, and I think we will also have a strong, bipartisan leadership structure that gives us the best possible chance and does not look like Washington,” said Leger, who currently serves as the House’s second-ranking member.

Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the Louisiana House Republican Delegation, said he thinks enough of his members will stick together to choose a speaker from the GOP.

“We’re standing rock solid,” said Harris, R-Alexandria. “We’re staying with our commitment to have a Republican speaker because we think that’s the most effective way to combat Louisiana’s problems.”

Harris rejected suggestions the dispute resembled the partisanship of Congress.

“We’re nowhere like Washington, D.C. What’s wrong with a majority party wanting a speaker to come out of its delegation?” he said.

Edwards points to eight years ago, when the then-majority Democratic House chose Republican Jim Tucker to be its speaker, with GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal’s support.

Tucker, however, put his own bipartisan coalition together before getting an announcement of support from Jindal.

“He blessed it, but it was done,” Tucker said.

Henry said he’s focused on shoring up Republican support, but he’s hoping to bring in Democratic supporters as well. He downplayed the governor-elect’s support for Leger as an “obstacle.”

A state representative for eight years, Edwards once pushed to make the House more independent, a point not lost on Henry.

“He just happens to be the governor when members will take the first step toward that independence,” Henry said.

Both Henry and Leger said they believe once the speaker’s race is decided, House members will work together in the special session on budget and tax issues, expected to be filled with difficult votes, including some that require support of 70 members.

“Our Legislature is still a place where common sense is going to reign, and ultimately Democrats and Republicans are going to come together,” Leger said. “I’m confident of that.”

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Follow Melinda Deslatte at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte .

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