DFL steams ahead at Minnesota Capitol, GOP brands it ‘extreme’

Published 5:40 pm Monday, February 6, 2023

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Republicans are outnumbered at Minnesota’s Capitol. And so far, they’ve been unable to stop an early onslaught of DFL-backed legislation on abortion, energy, voting and more.

As the Legislature tilts toward an upcoming debate over a new state budget, Republicans are approaching their minority role this session with a focus on branding the DFL majorities as going well beyond what voters expected when they gave Democrats total control of state government.

“You want ‘One Minnesota?’ You want help? You want to work together? I’m sorry about these first three bills that you have put as your priorities, you’ve done none of that,” Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, said during a House debate on a bill that would let immigrants in Minnesota without proper authorization obtain driver’s licenses. “You want ‘One Minnesota—’ your way or no way.’”

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In November’s election, Democrats retained their House majority; they hold 70 seats to 64 for the GOP. In the Senate, the DFL flipped control but it’s a razor-thin 34-33 margin there. And DFL Gov. Tim Walz is serving another four years in that role.

It has led to a torrid pace on matters big and small. It might be surprising for a party that often finds it difficult to march in step, but so far the tight majorities have held.

Despite Republican efforts, the DFL hasn’t gotten sidetracked yet on proposals the party’s lawmakers and allies wanted fast-tracked.

A significant abortion and reproductive rights bill is already law. A clean energy goal now awaits Walz’s signature.

Both of those passed narrowly and in the form favored by DFLers. Other bills have garnered bipartisan backing, but a few coming down the tracks will test Democratic resolve.

Republicans don’t have the votes on their side so they’re going in a different direction.

They’re pushing for recorded votes on numerous amendments, if nothing else to get swing district legislators on record and provide fodder for ads to come. That has extended some debates — 15 hours in the case of the Senate’s consideration of the abortion bill.

Slowing the process has long been a tool of the minority.

“To me, it’s a very disappointing session right now. What’s really splitting us between the Democrats is about 160 votes at the end of the day,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. “That’s what the difference is. If we would have flipped one district, we would have been in majority control. Now, we’ve been cut out of the process.”

There are hard votes to come — more on abortion, some on gun restrictions and a lot connected to taxes and the budget. DFLers will do all they can to sort things out behind closed doors before bills get aired publicly. And Republicans will work to to expose fractures and lean on weak links. It’ll be something of a cat-and-mouse game the rest of the way.

In the absence of achieving meaningful input on bills, Republican legislators are working hard to frame for the public what they see as overreach by the DFL majorities.

They’ve gravitated toward a single word to capture it: Extreme.

“I cannot imagine more extreme policy. Well, I can imagine it because you’ve proposed that too,” Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said during the abortion bill debate last month.

What’s extreme is obviously subjective.

But many Republicans see it as a versatile word that can penetrate public consciousness if people hear it enough, regardless of the issue at hand.

Some form of the term was used a combined 215 times in abortion debates on the House and Senate floors, but it has also come up around the energy bill, some gun legislation and more.

Bill Walsh is communications director for the conservative group Center of the American Experiment. Walsh spent considerable time as a top GOP legislative staffer earlier in his career when his side was often in the minority, and said voters should expect to hear the word repeatedly in the coming months.

“There’s a limited capacity of your average voter to really follow everything going on at the Capitol,” Walsh said. “And I don’t blame them, they’re living their lives, they’re raising their children, they’re going to work. But if the overall theme is `Wow, they went too far, you know, they won, they certainly had a mandate to do things, but they went too far. They became extreme.’ It’s easier to understand, kind of globally, than any individual bill.”

DFLers have sometimes responded to the branding with smirks and eyerolls.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, notes that most of the bills that have passed so far have done so with Republican votes. She views the extreme moniker as rooted in political payback.

“I think that Republicans are admittedly very frustrated,” she said. “They thought they were going to have at least both houses of the Legislature. Some of them believed they would have a trifecta. And so now they’re using this word against us, which we use very effectively against them during the campaign season. Although I just don’t think it fits.”

MPR News senior reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this report