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Session reveals division in GOP

Jeb Bush swept into office four years ago poised to lead a Republican revolution in Tallahassee. As he runs for re-election now, it looks more like a Republican civil war.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature adjourned Friday after a rancorous session that underscored bitter animosities and deep philosophical schisms within the GOP.

This is not the same party that triumphantly took over state government in 1999.

That year, a governor firmly in control of a unified party easily pushed through the Legislature hugely ambitious initiatives, from overhauling education to changing Florida's civil justice system.

This year, the governor couldn't get most of his top priorities passed and was helpless to bridge rifts among feuding Republican leaders, including two of the party's top officeholders, Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Comptroller Bob Milligan.

Chalk it up to the natural evolution of the new majority party. As Democrats proved year after year when they controlled state government, running the show can be a grim and ugly process.

"This has not been complimentary to the Republican Party," said Tom Slade, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. "It has muddied the definition of who we are, what we believe in and why we're here."

The waning days of the session were downright surreal.

House Democrats, in a rare show of unity, tried to fight off a bill that could eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax exemptions. Yet fighting to save the bill, to the horror of the business lobby, were some of the state's most conservative antitax Republicans, who consider eliminating an exemption the equivalent of a tax increase.

The session ended with tempers flaring and major work left unfinished. Lawmakers will have to return to pass a budget, define the duties of the state's new chief financial officer and complete a rewrite of state education laws.

Dealmaking over the new Cabinet position prompted a discouraging scenario for Republican leaders: a tough primary battle for CFO between two GOP titans, Gallagher and Milligan. Milligan was so mad about how the new position was drawn that he announced he would run against Gallagher.

Republicans wanted to coax Milligan into running for Congress, and leaders are still hoping to stop that primary contest.

"Don't sell us short on our persuasive capabilities," GOP Chairman Al Cardenas said.

The vast majority of Florida voters, of course, aren't fixated on the chaotic infighting in Tallahassee. But even for a governor leading comfortably in early polls, the session provided a rocky transition to his re-election campaign.

By Saturday, Democrats already were trying to turn the session into a campaign issue.

"The question will be the governor's leadership," said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno, looking ahead to the campaign. She criticized a compromise lawmakers passed to look at eliminating tax exemptions.

To appease Senate President John McKay, Bush persuaded Republican lawmakers to propose a constitutional amendment setting up a committee of 12 lawmakers to review tax exemptions for repeal.

"For the governor and the Legislature to say, "We want hands off this process and let 12 people decide an issue as important as taxes,' just seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility," Reno said.

Democrat Bill McBride, Reno's chief challenger, called the session a "big disappointment."

"This is his party and his time to lead," McBride said of Bush. "As best I could tell, he sat on his hands for three-fourths of the session and left the heavy lifting to (Lt. Gov.) Frank Brogan."

Bush brushed aside the session's turbulence and unfinished business, noting that lawmakers passed hundreds of bills and redrew political districts, all in 60 days. The last time lawmakers confronted redistricting, Democrats were in charge and had to call nine special sessions.

But Bush himself was snubbed, at least temporarily, on several fronts: education is the centerpiece of his campaign, but he could not get a new school code passed; prominent Republican fundraiser Phil Handy, Bush's nominee to head the state Board of Education, was not confirmed; his second attempt to tie development to school capacity resulted in a watered-down bill not nearly as tough as last year's proposal; public records exemptions pushed by his administration in the name of fighting terrorism failed; he wanted to fund Everglades restoration without borrowing money, but lawmakers approved bonds; and he failed to persuade lawmakers to commit $100-million for high-tech research centers at state universities.

The difficulty lawmakers faced was exacerbated by the high-stakes drama of redistricting, by a tough budget year, and by personality clashes. But the session also exposed deep philosophical divisions within the state GOP.

Some Republicans, notably in the Senate, believe passionately that Florida's needs, especially schools, won't be met without overhauling its tax structure. Others, including Bush and House leaders, say that's bunk. They are equally passionate about further tax cuts and less government.

That partly explains the hostility between the Republican governor and Republican-controlled Senate. Other factors include Bush's past vetoes of lawmakers' projects and what some see as Bush's high-handed style.

Years of frustration poured out in an extraordinary scene at the conclusion of the session Friday. While major work remained unfinished, Senate President John McKay allowed senator after senator to rip into Bush.

"I do not believe that our governor has the proper respect for the Legislature as an institution," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "Perhaps because our governor has not served in elective office up here, I don't think he has ever gotten the message about the give and take that it takes to make things happen."

The harsh words may sting now, but time is on Bush's side. The election is months away, and at least three special sessions in the coming months will give the governor another chance to push through his agenda.

And the continuing disarray among Democrats gives Bush some measure of political comfort. House Democrats never came to grips with McKay's tax reform measure and couldn't even muster an effective walkout over House Speaker Tom Feeney's extraordinary maneuver to defeat it.

"I would compare Republican leadership with Democratic leadership any day of the week," said Bush, pointing out that his office helped resolve some turbulent issues. "The truth be known, if not for our involvement, we wouldn't have had this successful session."