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Ohio House set to meet as leadership battle among Republicans rages on

Stephens swearing in.jfif
Ohio Government Television
Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) is sworn in as Ohio House Speaker on January 3, 2023, surrounded by Republican and Democratic members who voted to elect him to that leadership post, including Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington), who held the Bible.

The Ohio House has not met for session since members of the new 135th Ohio General Assembly took their oaths of office nearly three weeks ago.

The first session will come amid a battle between two factions of Republicans — one group that supports House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), and the other backing Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova), who had been the speaker-elect last fall.

It’s an unusual and unprecedented situation.

The day he was elected speaker, Jason Stephens spoke to reporters about any possible changes he might make in the administration of the House.

“I think what we'll try to do is put that together and put that out to everybody so you can see what we're doing with it," Stephens said. "And I think it's important that we do that quickly and we be efficient about it, but it's also important that we get it right.”

That was the last time Stephens talked to reporters. He hasn’t done any press conferences or interviews. But Merrin has, starting with a somewhat extraordinary statement after a closed-door meeting that statehouse journalists were made aware of: "I'm the leader of the House Republicans.”

Merrin came into the new session as the presumed speaker, having prevailed in a three-way contest in a private vote among Republicans after the election in November. But Stephens won the official House floor election for speaker, getting 21 Republican votes and securing all 32 Democratic votes after some behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Merrin won 43 votes in that election for speaker, all from Republicans.

And they stand behind him, including Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton), who was the third candidate in that private vote. Plummer said the group, which he calls the "integrity caucus", has met with Stephens to give him their proposal on new House rules that he says would decentralize the speaker’s power.

“The big money is in the rules. We need to change the rules. That's where it gets done," Plummer said. "We also asked for 66% of all chairmanships, 66% of members on committees, so he can't stack power in committees and force his agenda through without the voice of this caucus.”

Plummer said they’re also reaching out to Democrats on those rules changes, saying they’ll help the minority have more of a voice.

But Merrin supporters have also said they think Stephens made a deal with Democrats to halt some of the conservative legislation they support on abortion, education and other issues.

“You don't sell out your colleagues to the Democrats," Merrin backer Rep. Gary Click (R-Vickery) said on "The State of Ohio."

Click said, "There’s some great Democrats on the other side that I love. I consider them my friends, but I don't give them the keys to the house and they give them the keys to the house. They sold out some legislation is what I believe, and I would be happy to be proven wrong.”

David Cohen, director of the applied politics program at the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, said, “I just think a civil war is now raging in the open within the Ohio House Republican Caucus and I don't think it's going to serve their party very well."

Cohen said a coalition of more moderate Republicans and minority Democrats might be able to pass legislation in the House, but it might not get past the Republican supermajority in the Senate.

But he added, “I think the major implication for this, though, is that some of the more controversial legislation that was being talked about is going to be dead on arrival because the votes won't be there in the House.”

Cohen said the battle for control of Republican House leadership is unprecedented. That’s how Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) views it too.

“There’s sort of this, can I say ‘three-headed monster?' Too late, I already did. And certainly it’s important to me what the positions of members of my party are but I’m going to be conversing with everybody. But the speaker and the speaker’s office is in a unique position. I’m going to keep that in mind too,” Huffman said.

The Merrin coalition said if Stephens doesn’t respond to their rules changes, they have other options, such as a lengthy debate on the House floor.

There were no responses to requests for comment from Stephens or from Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington), but Stephens said in a statement after the Merrin caucus’ first meeting: "My focus remains on unifying the House Republican caucus to get to work.”