RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly opened its two-year legislative session Wednesday with Republicans on the cusp of veto-proof control that will force Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to thread parliamentary needles to block abortion restrictions and other culture war issues he’s vowed to fight.
The House and Senate gaveled down a one-day organizational meeting required by law to seat all 170 lawmakers and elect leaders, in particular again picking Rep. Tim Moore as speaker and Sen. Phil Berger as Senate leader. The session — and the legislating — will begin in earnest in two weeks.
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Republicans managed to win in November the two additional Senate seats needed for a 30-seat veto-proof majority in the 50-member chamber. But House Republicans fell one seat short — winning 71 of the 120 seats — giving Cooper a narrow path to block measures if the chamber’s Democrats are all present and united to sustain the second-term governor’s vetoes.
“I can see some reasonable policy changes,” Sen. Jim Perry, a Lenoir County Republican entering his third term, said in light of the political dynamics. “I don’t think we’ll see anything extreme in nature because you still have to have a Democrat in the House that’s willing to cross over and vote for something.”
Still, Moore, now in a record fifth term as speaker, reiterated on Wednesday the Republican seat advantage is a “governing supermajority,” and said a number of Democrats have made clear they’ll vote with Republicans on key issues.
Cooper has been extremely effective with vetoes over the past four years in which GOP margins weren’t veto-proof — no overrides from the 47 he issued.
House Republicans further narrowed Cooper’s recourses to uphold vetoes Wednesday when they pushed through temporary operating rules that omit a longstanding requirement that chamber leaders give at least two days’ notice before conducting an override vote.
That rule has helped House Democrats marshal their forces before an override attempt. The change, which likely will be debated heavily when permanent rules surface, could allow Republicans to complete an override simply because one Democrat is absent or must leave to take a phone call.
“It’s a shame that House Republican leaders believe they can only override a veto through deception, surprise and trickery,” Cooper said in a written statement late Wednesday. He urged requiring at least 24 hours’ notice for an override, in keeping with Senate rules.
Moore downplayed the rules omission, telling reporters that veto overrides would simply now be treated like action on other bills and that an “ambush kind of vote” is “not something we’re looking at.”
Such undertakings could be tested on topics such as abortion, which, in light of last June’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade, gives Republicans the opportunity to tighten North Carolina’s 20-week ban.
Moore suggested later Wednesday that some support was emerging in his chamber for a proposal backed by Berger to advance legislation prohibiting abortion after the first trimester — 12 or 13 weeks of pregnancy — with new exceptions for rape and incest. But Moore cautioned that discussions on the topic remained in “early stages.”
“Twenty weeks is in essence five months into a pregnancy. I think if you look at where the people of the state of North Carolina are, they think that that’s too long,” Berger said.
Cooper, who campaigned in the fall for legislative candidates largely on blocking additional abortion restrictions, has said further lowering the 20-week limit would be extreme legislation.
The influence of women at the Legislative Building on the topic may be more keenly felt in their sheer numbers. There are now 50 female members, a seven-seat increase compared to the past session. Thirty-eight are Democrats.
First-term Rep. Kanika Brown, a Forsyth County Democrat, said she plans to advocate for abortion safeguards among other initiatives, while elevating women’s voices from her district.
“I’m just glad to see the diversity of women that have stepped forward, you know, to take claim, to take charge and pave the way for the rest of the young ladies that’s coming behind us,” Brown said. “It’s on us to make sure they understand what’s going on and not leave them in the dark.”
Neither Berger nor Moore mentioned abortion in their acceptance speeches, focusing instead on efforts they’d like to see toward improving education and health care access and supporting law enforcement in a rapidly-growing state.
The legislature and Cooper could find common ground within a two-year state government budget bill — this year’s chief task. Medicaid expansion — a recurring plea for Cooper since he became governor in 2017 — could finally happen after the chambers passed competing expansion legislation in 2022.
The Legislative Building contained more pomp compared to the 2021 opening, when COVID-19 health concerns prevented family members from joining new legislators on the House and Senate floors for the swearings-in.
This time, they sat with lawmakers as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, took their oaths of office and reelected Moore as speaker and Berger as Senate president pro tempore. Former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt — now 85 — sat on the Senate floor with his daughter, Rachel, who joined the Senate after two terms in the House.
The House swearings-in were delayed briefly when Rep. Bill Brisson, a Bladen County Republican, needed the attention of emergency medical technicians. He returned to the chamber 20 minutes later to take the oath of office.
Moore’s election made history by breaking a tie with two former speakers who had served four such terms. Berger also was elected by acclamation to a seventh term. He’s second in longevity to predecessor Sen. Marc Basnight, a Dare County Democrat who served nine terms.