New Republican Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said Tuesday that he wants fellow lawmakers to put vicious election campaigns behind them and move to a new era of bipartisan civility — and said he was doing the same as he appointed two Democrats to head committees.
Bosma said it's the first time in state history that the majority leader has asked minority members to be committee chairs, a job that carries the power to determine which bills move forward. Republicans won control of the House in November's elections and now hold 60 out of 100 seats in the typically rancorous and divided chamber.
"I'm serious about bipartisanship," said Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "I intend to make it work."
Bosma named Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, to lead the commerce, small business and economic development committee and Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, to head a new committee focusing on reducing government regulations and laws. Republicans would be vice chairmen of the two committees.
Dobis lost his Democratic leadership position in the last session after clashing with then-House Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, but said he was still a Democrat and didn't see the appointment as recruiting. He said Bosma was simply reaching across the aisle with an olive branch.
"Everybody's called for bipartisanship over the years," Dobis said. "Nobody's really been sincere about it."
But Bauer, now the House Minority Leader after Democrats lost their slim majority, didn't immediately buy into the idea of everyone peacefully working together. He suspected Bosma wanted Democrats on the committees so he could spread the blame for any politically-charged bills that might become election liabilities.
"It's an olive branch with thorns," Bauer said.
The committee offerings also ruffled Bauer's feathers because he said as the Democratic leader, he should be the one to appoint members to the committee.
Bosma acknowledged that some lawmakers may still have hard feelings over election campaigns that involved attack ads and negative campaigning. But he said the House needed to rise above partisan bickering.
"I think we owe it to the public," he said.
Any lingering resentment over the elections didn't show on Tuesday as lawmakers gathered at the Statehouse for the largely ceremonial Organization Day. Legislators in the House and Senate shook hands and gave each other hugs. They took oaths of office as spouses, children and parents watched from balconies and snapped pictures.
Whether that jovial spirit will stick around once lawmakers start dealing with weighty issues is another matter. There's plenty on the agenda for the 2011 session, which begins Jan. 5. Republicans control the House, Senate and governor's office and their top priorities include creating a new two-year budget and fixing the state's broken unemployment insurance fund.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, applauded Bosma's decision to include Democrats as committee chairs but said all committees in the Senate — a chamber long controlled by the GOP — will be held by Republicans. He said he'll have to wait and see whether Bosma's experiment will mean real bipartisan cooperation.
"It makes a great statement," Long said. "That's a very positive start to the 2011 session."