89th session — ‘Not that different?’

Gov. Beebe’s instinct, he told the Arkansas General Assembly this week, was that things between them would work out just fine, that the dynamics of its 89th regular session “will not be that different for either of us.”

Mr. Beebe is on the inside, so perhaps he has the session wired. I and my fellow observers are on the outside, so we could be wrong when we think we see some frayed cords.

I as yet know of no reason to challenge what has become the conventional wisdom, that the leaders of the Senate and House, both chambers under Republican control (the former firmly and the latter by a single member) for the first time in longer than a century, are reasonable men — Michael Lamoureux of Russellville, the president pro tempore, and Speaker Davy Carter of Cabot. They are affable, smile easily, play well (so far) with others and both are very smart. That is not what Mr. Beebe means when he, among other Democrats and other key figures in his administration, calls them “reasonable.”

Rather, it is that both men are of a different party, yes, but neither is by nature a bomb-thrower. Oh, a little show every now and then for the home folks, or for the Republican base; you have to expect that, understand that, and Mr. Beebe does. Too, the legislative leaders answer to ideological impulses that are less than completely in sync with the Governor’s. But if they waltz to different tempos of governance than the executive, Messrs. Lamoureux and Carter believe the best way to expand their party’s legislative majorities and set the stage for a GOP victory in the race to succeed Mr. Beebe is to avoid the overtly partisan knife fights that have made an abattoir of the nation’s capitol, no place for old men or young, Greece without the beaches. A running battle that angry voters see as pointless and poisonous, and which, in the balloting of last November, witnessed a supposedly crippled president overwhelmingly re-elected and the opposition party sacrifice strength in the Senate on the altar of ideology.

Thus, the thinking goes, we will see a session in which heated Republican rhetoric regarding the proper role of government gradually gives way to a grudging acceptance of Mr. Beebe’s overriding goal, the linchpin of his proposed $5 billion budget: expansion of the Medicaid program as provided for in the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. And, yes, in the regular session; no, not in a special session later in the year.

That is what Mr. Beebe means when he calls Carter and Lamoureux “reasonable.” His pronouncement is less an appraisal of their temperament and intellect than a policy he hopes they can be persuaded to help effect. Publicly they have thus far been notably reluctant, skeptical companions.

Question: Are the reservations of the Speaker and Senate President regarding Medicaid more fiscal than philosophical? Or are those concerns wedded? Is there room for compromise in Mr. Beebe’s vision of the program and/or its parameters as specified by Washington?

Observation: Carter, especially, walks a tightrope. He became speaker in a last-second challenge to fellow Republican Terry Rice of Waldron, who had every expectation of the chair, and the coup, enabled only by overwhelming support among House Democrats, left bruises beneath some GOP shirtsleeves. Mr. Beebe has scarcely missed an opportunity to praise Carter, which plays better with the new Speaker than many other Republicans. Carter’s two top aides, one retained and the other installed, are lifelong Democrats — more grumbling. And if Carter is not a fire-breather, others in his slender majority are not as prone to nuance, and possibly not to the half-a-loaf approach. House Republicans, mostly, are in their first or second terms; Carter is serving his third and final tour. It is component of legislative politics that cannot be ignored in a body of term-limited members: a speaker whose tenure will soon enough be measured in months, even one whose aspirations may include higher office, is soon enough a lame duck — he can still do favors, important ones, but the calendar favors his newer colleagues.

It is not fanciful to envision a scenario much like the one (more than one) that has convulsed Washington. A meeting of the minds by two — dare we say it? — reasonable men, Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner, a grand bargain within their grasp, a compromise each could claim as a victory, a way out for them and the country. Then the deal is dashed when the Speaker returns to his caucus and discovers he has lost control of it.

Will the session indeed be “not that different”? Is the conventional wisdom merely wishful thinking?