DES MOINES — The newly seated 85th General Assembly opened Monday amid calls for bipartisan cooperation, but members were uncertain how long that spirit would last during the next 109 scheduled days of work.
Republicans and Democrats prepared for another two years of divided government with a day of welcoming and hugging for the returning members who survived a hard-fought post-reapportionment election and the 37 new members who got acclimated to their seats, parking and other assignments.
The ornate Capitol building rang with the sounds of bagpipes, clapping and the buzz of family members who watched their loved ones make history.
“The speeches were brief because it’s not an election year, and I’ve got copies of former speeches that will prove that,” Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan said.
Legislators listened to opening-day remarks by leaders who said the 2013 work will be about passing a balanced budget, providing tax relief, enacting education reform, helping employers grow jobs and equipping workers with the skills they need in the 21st century workplace.
“It’s a full house,” Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said as she surveyed the extra chairs in the Senate chambers and the galleries packed with relatives and other onlookers.
She became only the second woman and the first Democratic woman named by her peers to serve as the Senate’s presiding officer.
Jochum’s oath of office and other administrative and ceremonial proceedings in the Senate were beamed to an Internet audience for the first time via new cameras and enhanced lighting that was installed during the interim to enable floor proceedings to be streamed live. It’s similar to what the Iowa House began doing last year.
“All in all, I think it went pretty well,” Secretary of the Senate Mike Marshall said of the Iowa Senate’s first day of video-streamed proceedings.
In the Iowa House, Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, enjoyed a relaxed moment after delivering her opening-day remarks by walking around the chambers carrying her grandson, Cooper, 2.
“My grandson doesn’t get to visit very often, so it was great,” Upmeyer said. “We always like to have our families here when they can be. It just happened that my daughter had the day off.”
Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, marked his 41st session opening day — 10 in the House and 31 in the Senate.
“It’s pretty routine, nothing really different or exciting about it,” said Horn, 79. “Every session has a different personality. I’ve been here long enough that I’m not getting excited about anything one way or the other, but tougher on my decisions.”
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, agreed with Horn that each General Assembly and each session has its own unique qualities. With 37 new legislative members, there will be new ideas and new perspectives that may open doors that weren’t possible the past two years, he said.
However, he declined to address many specifics, telling reporters, “I don’t know the answers today. We just got organized.”
The speaker said he expected the House GOP tax relief and reduction plan to be introduced as early as Tuesday, noting that the state doesn’t have a surplus but rather has collected an “overpayment” from taxpayers that needs to be returned.
That fragile nature of bipartisanship was evidenced when Jochum included in her opening remarks a call for lawmakers to expand Medicaid to about 150,000 Iowans under the federal health-care reform initiative — an idea that drew a quick thumbs-down from Paulsen. “That would be something that would be extremely difficult for us to do,” the House speaker noted.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, noted that Iowa is one of three states where legislative control is divided with one political party controlling the House and the other party holding sway in the Senate. He said that Iowa is not consistently a blue state in the Democratic column nor a red state in the Republican column. “It is clear that Iowa is the ‘purpleist’ of purple states” where its residents expect politicians to work together “to find common ground and to moderate,” he said.
He said minority Democrats plan to look for middle ground on issues of education, health care, public safety and a clean environment, telling Paulsen “each and every day that House Democrats show up to work and find that the majority party is ready to work with us in a bipartisan way on these and other important issues, then Mr. Speaker, you will receive a helping hand from us.
“But be mindful, however, if a day comes when House Democrats show up to work and instead find that the House ship has steered into stormy waters, then House Democrats will attempt to steer that ship out of those stormy waters, away from the extreme back to the mainstream,” McCarthy added. “In my opinion, far too many of those days occurred over the past two years.”