COLUMBUS, Ohio — Despite losing the battle for Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, state Rep. Derek Merrin says he is actually the leader of Republicans — and the majority of his caucus agrees.
Although spirits were high during the Ohio House Republicans meeting Wednesday morning, the closed-door event signaled a severed party.
Only 45 of the 67 elected Republicans were invited, a choice made by Merrin (R-Monclava Twp.) and his allies.
"We are under siege, there's no question about it," Merrin said. "But we will stand our ground."
Back in November, the GOP caucus voted for Derek Merrin to be speaker. But during the full House vote in December, more moderate state Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) won after he made deals with Democrats to stop certain bills.
Twenty-two Republicans joined the vote, with 54 votes for Stephens and 43 for Merrin. Two of Merrin's team members were unable to attend the vote, but it didn't end up mattering.
Since then, the 45 republicans who didn’t want Stephens have been feeling stressed about how they will get their bills passed.
"Welcome to life in the minority," state Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson) laughed.
The chaos surrounding the Merrin team is just showing Ohio how they are unwilling to work across the aisle, or even in the same aisle, Weinstein said.
"I think it just plays into what most Ohioans fear is the reality is the dysfunction in Columbus and an inability to work together," he said.
However, the Democrats and the moderates coming together for a census speaker was empowering for him, adding he has never been more optimistic to get common sense legislation passed. Stephens seems to agree.
"My focus remains on unifying the House Republican Caucus to get to work," Stephens told News 5. "After meeting with dozens of members of the Ohio House this past week, I am confident the House can move forward and deliver real results for the people of our great state."
News 5 reached out to a multitude of GOP lawmakers who voted for Stephens, but each deferred to the comment by the speaker.
The majority of the Republican party said the debacle isn’t over yet.
"We're going to decentralize power — the speaker can't have all the power anymore," state Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) said. "We want input on chairs, committee assignments... we can't have a dictator anymore."
Weinstein rolled his eyes at this comment.
"When they're not getting their way, when the most extreme in their caucus aren't getting their way, they want to change the rules to make it easier to do that," the Democrat added.
When asked if he didn't consider the 22 defectors as Republicans anymore, Merrin skirted the question.
"We have not separated from anyone," he said, mirroring language from his colleagues. "The 22 have separated from us and they separated from the Republican caucus. That does not mean they're our enemies — they're not. We look forward to hopefully... being a unified caucus again."
Until then, though:
"I'm the leader of the House Republicans," Merrin said.
Ohio seemingly has a three-party system in effect — Democrats, Stephens' team and Merrin's team. But if you ask some conservative Republicans, they consider members who voted for Stephens to be Democrats.
House Joint Resolution 6
The meeting agenda revolved around addressing priorities for the 135th General Assembly and finished with the lawmakers introducing a more extreme version of the House Joint resolution 6, a resolution to require a 60% supermajority vote in order for constitutional amendments to succeed.
This bill failed in the 134th General Assembly after mass outrage. In the updated version, resolution sponsor state Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) said the changes are based on feedback.
Instead of only needing signatures from 44 counties to put something on the ballot, the new version requires signatures from all 88.
"If an amendment is going to apply to every Ohioan, then every community should have a hand in putting that potential Constitution amendment on the ballot," Stewart said.
The lawmakers also decided to eliminate the grace period for correcting signatures once they have been collected.
"If you want to get your idea on the Constitution — do it right, get it right the first time," he added.
The likelihood of H.J.R. 6 even moving on the floor is debatable. In an exclusive TV interview with News 5, Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) said that one of the deals was the elimination of the controversial resolution.