As the Ohio House sits idle, Rep. Ryan Smith says he is confident he can get the necessary votes to be named House speaker in time for the next scheduled session on May 23.
Wednesday’s House session — with a robust slate of bills, including new payday lending regulations — was canceled after majority House Republicans met for more than four hours Tuesday but failed to get 50 members unified behind a single speaker candidate.
The House must replace former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, who became the first Ohio speaker in modern times to resign mid-term. He left in April after acknowledging that the FBI was inquiring about some of his activities. Sources confirmed that those questions involve Rosenberger’s overseas trips.
When the House Republican caucus voted Tuesday, Smith, R-Bidwell, got 42 of 65 votes. Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, got 20 votes, while Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville, got three.
Thompson and Pelanda were running as short-term candidates, since they’re leaving the House at the end of December. Smith wants to serve as speaker in the 2019-20 session, and has been locked in a bitter leadership fight with Rep. Larry Householder, R-Glenford.
In normal times, the caucus coalesces around the winner. But on Tuesday, 47 said they would support Smith on the House floor Wednesday, but 18 said no. He needs 50 to win.
"As I said from the beginning, I have a strong majority. That proved to be true," Smith said on Wednesday. "We’re in very good position right now to get this thing wrapped up."
Smith thinks at least three of the 18 no votes can be convinced to back him. Most Republicans do not want to rely on Democratic votes to pick a new speaker.
Smith declined to say who might be talked into coming on board, but other Republicans have pointed to a handful: Reps. Jim Hughes of Upper Arlington, Anne Gonzales of Westerville, Andrew Brenner of Powell and Johnathan Dever of Cincinnati.
"It’s a shame that one person’s aspirations are holding us back from doing the work of the people," Smith said, referring to Householder, who is looking to return to leadership after serving as speaker from 2001-04.
Hughes did not indicate that he would back Smith, though the 19-year lawmaker has not traditionally advocated sowing government dysfunction. Pressure on members is expected to intensify, particularly from outside forces who understand the political damage caused by canceling sessions because Republicans can’t agree on a leader.
"My feeling is we should put an interim speaker in and then let Ryan Smith and Larry Householder fight it out after the election," Hughes said. "I think it’s the fairer way for all parties. At this time, I would prefer it this way."
Brenner posted on Facebook: "There is going to have to be a negotiation over the next few days."
Thompson said he doesn’t see a quick end to the impasse.
"A lot of the folks who voted for me are very concerned about the ongoing inquiries of what went on under Rosenberger’s leadership," he said. "We’d like to come together and have some kind of consensus, but fundamentally the folks who voted for me are not in favor of Ryan Smith for speaker, and I’m not sure there’s a fish or bone that can be thrown."
Rosenberger’s new financial disclosure forms showed $43,000 spent on travel last year, paid for by campaign funds and organizations including Columbus 2020.
A number of members like the idea of an interim speaker, Thompson said. That, Smith counters, does not benefit the caucus.
"Certainty is a very important thing in this business," Smith said. "Having a vision into the future and people talking to someone who is going to be around for the next budget is very important at this juncture. Somebody who is not going to be around, I don’t think that gives us enough of an advantage going into the fall (election)."
But some of the 18 clearly won’t be swayed, thanks to factors including loyalty to Householder and Smith’s close relationship to Rosenberger.
"I know full and well my constituents would prefer to have a pause in the action (what little we take) then have corruption continue to run rampant," Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, who lost his GOP primary race, wrote on Facebook.
In a long, scathing Facebook post with multiple "swamp" references, Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, said the next speaker "should be removed from the current cronyism and FBI investigation."
Democrats who have been spotlighting the FBI probe and other issues, say House sessions could start immediately.
"It is important that the House continue to do the work the people of Ohio sent us here to do," said Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus. "It is clear that there are rules in place that would allow the House to move forward and not be impeded by this Republican internal struggle to elect a speaker."