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Republican divisions on display

ST. PAUL -- The scenes were in dramatic contrast. In the DFL leadership suite, on the Minnesota Capitol's north side, remnants of pizza cooled on Sen. Doug Johnson's desk. Reporters, senators and lobbyists sat in the Tower senator's o...

ST. PAUL -- The scenes were in dramatic contrast.

In the DFL leadership suite, on the Minnesota Capitol's north side, remnants of pizza cooled on Sen. Doug Johnson's desk. Reporters, senators and lobbyists sat in the Tower senator's office passing time. Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock sat on the back of a chair chatting with a television reporter.

The scene was calm.

Across the street in the State Office Building, the door was closed to House Speaker Steve Sviggum's office. The Kenyon Republican's voice could be heard when the door opened from time to time, the voice leaving no doubt the meeting was tense.

As GOP lawmakers shuttled from the Sviggum meeting to another one down the hall, they wore frowns and were short, even snippy.

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When the speaker emerged from the meeting to announce senators should accept a budget deal they already had rejected, he snapped at two reporters -- uncharacteristic for a man who understands he needs good publicity -- and moved to within inches of one reporter's face after she asked a question that reminded him too much of the just-ended, closed-door discussion.

DFL senators say they have disagreements within their caucus, but they almost always end up working together. Differences among GOP representatives, meanwhile, often spill over into public.

Take, for instance, last week's transportation funding conference committee meeting.

The House presented an offer to senators to raise the gasoline tax 3 cents. It was quite a change from the House's previous refusal to consider a gas tax increase, after senators originally wanted a 6-cent boost.

Conservative Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, explained to senators that the proposal was the best transportation funding proposal possible, because it had the best chance to pass an anti-tax House. Her plea seemed convincing from someone who had opposed any tax increase.

Sen. Julie Sabo, DFL-Minneapolis, pressed House Republicans about the proposal, finally calling for a vote. Republicans had planned to discuss the issue, but did not expect a vote.

The House plan received only one vote -- that of the House committee chairman, Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester. Holberg, after her compelling speech to adopt the proposal, voted against it and other House members abstained.

The transportation episode was one of the most public of the Republicans' internal disputes. It led Democrat after Democrat to comment on the division within the GOP.

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Tuesday night, Sviggum said he tried every combination he could think of to get a transportation package acceptable to the House -- Republicans and Democrats both. He said he failed and declared the issue dead for the year.

Republicans say their deep division over a gasoline tax is their worst split this year. Otherwise, they say House Republicans are agreeing more than they did in the past.

Don't try to tell that to Democrats.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Republicans refuse to negotiate the major session-ending bills. He called it a pre-planned conspiracy -- and "gubernatorial politics of Tim Pawlenty and Steve Sviggum." Pawlenty, the House majority leader, is in what has turned into a tight race for the Republican endorsement with Twin Cities businessman Brian Sullivan.

Murphy's theory is Republicans want to make government look "so ugly and brutal" that it will discourage voters from turning out this fall. In low-turnout elections, Republicans usually win.

When they took control of the House in 1999, Republicans met in the open, letting reporters listen in. As time went on, their discussions became more and more heated and two years ago they closed their caucus meetings because too much of their dirty laundry ended up in print.

Since then, reporters only have occasional glimpses inside the GOP caucus. But in the lengthy meeting in Sviggum's office Monday night, even the closed door could not hide the problems.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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