Opinion: Tennessee Senate, House playing political game of chicken in special session

AP Photo/George Walker IV/ House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, far left, is escorted to an elevator in the state Capitol after a special session of the Tennessee legislature on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Nashville.

Perhaps in January, they'll all be on the same page, all smiles again, all ready to pass conservative measures for the people of Tennessee.

But the differences in the Republican supermajority in the state Senate and state House during a special called legislative session Friday seemed as far apart as the usual differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Senate members passed several of the priorities Gov. Bill Lee set out for the session and adjourned. House members did not limit themselves to the governor's agenda, passed several bills and were back Monday for more deliberations.

None of the legislation passed on either side dealt with what the governor suggested when he called the special session and then did not push in his priorities — a temporary mental health order of protection that would allow for the removal of guns for up to a year from people showing signs of potentially violent behavior.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, was unusually pointed in his remarks in a conference call with reporters Friday about his colleagues in the Senate.

"It's disappointing they just want to pass a few bills," he said. "A few senators want to do nothing. It's an internal fight over power and leadership. We'll see how it plays out."

Sexton indicated the differences with the Senate even extended to their impression of the governor's involvement in the session.

"We talk to him," he said. "Our staff talks to his staff on a daily basis. The senators say the governor's not around. The Senate said they wouldn't meet with us if the governor is in the room. It's disingenuous to blame the governor if one side doesn't want to be in the room."

Meanwhile, Senate members have said it was important to concentrate specifically on what the governor proposed and to save the broader discussion on other issues around the theme of safety for the full legislative session that begins early next year. They also have expressed worry about passing legislation with significant costs outside the traditional budget schedule.

"[F]rom the Senate's perspective, we've completed the work that the governor has asked us to come up here and do," state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said to reporters Thursday.

Sexton told reporters that House members took their duty about the special session seriously by traveling around the state and listening to constituents and that anything they passed was not just one member who said, "Let's do this."

He said he didn't need a poll to tell them how Tennesseans felt about the likes of a temporary mental health order of protection.

"A lot of the members go to church, work, out to eat," Sexton said. The people they meet are "saying banning guns is not what we want to do. ... The governor didn't include that in the call. We have a pretty good understanding of what people are talking about and what people want to do."

How the political game of chicken ends is unclear. But the Senate needs the House to pass its legislation, and the House needs the Senate to ratify its bills. And they need to decide together to end the session. Perhaps nothing gets passed in both houses. That, in fact, is what some legislators have been hoping from the beginning.