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VOL. 124 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tenn. House Speaker Welcomed Back to GOP Caucus

By ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - House Republicans are welcoming back Speaker Kent Williams as a member of their caucus, marking the latest twist in the fallout from his surprise election to the chamber's top post earlier this year.

Williams, of Elizabethton, had previously been barred from House GOP caucus meetings following the state party's decision to strip him of his party affiliation.

But House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said a poll of the membership on Monday night revealed that an "overwhelming majority" of House Republicans preferred to keep Williams as a member.

"I was surprised a little bit," said Casada, of Franklin. "But I think in the membership's mind this is a way to demonstrate that we are moving on and that we are going to solve the problems of unemployment and the budgets shortfall."

Williams' re-admission to the caucus officially restores Republicans' one-vote majority in the 99-member House.

Williams infuriated many fellow Republicans at the start of the session when he banded together with the chamber's 49 Democrats to be elected speaker.

The move thwarted the election of the Republican nominee, Rep. Jason Mumpower of Bristol and led to the decision by the state party to declare Williams won't be allowed to run for re-election as a Republican in 2010.

Williams, who wasn't at Monday's meeting, said he feels "humbled" by the caucus decision.

"I have felt all along since I was removed from the state GOP that it wasn't the consensus of our Republican members here," he said.

Williams said he hopes the next step is to have his Republican credentials restored at the state level. "That's a goal of mine, to be reinstated, and I'm going to work toward that goal," he said.

State Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith said she has no control over legislative caucus, just as GOP lawmakers don't hold sway over party affairs.

"It's a decision by the 49 other members that work with Kent Williams. It's their decision," she said.

Smith said the caucus move won't change the speaker's status.

"Again, this changes nothing," she said. "Kent Williams will not be certified as Republican in his re-election should he choose to run in 2010."

Casada said the reason the decision had not been made public previously is because it was considered an internal issue.

"It's almost a non-issue," he said. "He's in, now let's quit talking about it and move on."

Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, a Covington Democrat who held the speakership for a record 18 years before Williams' election, said the Republican decision may have been spurred by the formation of a Rural Republican Caucus that had granted Williams access even while the full caucus would not.

Casada denied that the rural GOP group had an impact on the decision.

House Democratic Leader Gary Odom said he considers the House Republicans' decision a repudiation of Smith's leadership.

"What it shows is the leadership of the Republican Party in this state is out of touch with a lot of members of that party, including elected officials," said Odom, of Nashville. "You can tell it's the extreme right that is running the party."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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