Lawmakers plan for Lujan absence

It is unclear how House Speaker Ben Lujan's fight with lung cancer will play out day-to-day over the next month, whether he will show up each morning or miss portions of the state Legislature's 30-day session. Lujan didn't address that issue in remarks Tuesday to a stand-room-only crowd in the House of Representatives.

But some lawmakers already were planning for a novel, possibly historic, situation over the next four weeks.

"In the coming days there's going to be a lot of new ground plowed because we've never experienced it," said the chamber's top Repub-lican, House Minority Leader Thomas Taylor of Farmington.

A rule of the House allows a Speaker to appoint a lawmaker as his designee for a single day. The rules don't anticipate a Speaker's absence for a longer period of time, however, although no one is talking about Lujan being out of commission for long stretches.

But if Lujan were to miss several days consecutively, the House would have a decision to make. The chamber could unanimously vote to suspend the rule giving the Speaker authority to pick a replacement for a single day or try to change the rule to extend the time, Steve Arias, the Clerk of the New Mexico House of Representatives, said Tuesday.

Two-thirds of the elected lawmakers in the House must support a rule change for it to go into effect, Arias said.

The arcane rules of running the House chamber, however, took a back seat Tuesday to predictions that Demo-cratic and Republican leaders would work together to help the Speaker, a Democrat. Lawmakers often talk of those who serve in the Legislature as a family, regardless of the competing political or philosophical persuasions. And that tone was evident in many remarks Tuesday.

"I think he is going to do as much as humanly possible," said House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, the Democratic second-in-command. "But I guess a lot of us on both sides of the aisle will say, `Boss, if you need to take a break, take a break. We'll cover it.' We are a very human institution. We can cover for each other."

Taylor agreed.

"We have a lot of work to do in the next 30 days and it's not easy on one's health when you're healthy," the Farmington Republican said. "We will do our best to support the Speaker how we can during this period of time."

Lujan's ability to work through the session or not also could become an issue on certain bills, especially those in which the margin of support is so narrow that a single lawmaker's absence during a vote could shift a bill's chances of passing or failing. With Lujan's public announcement, that fact was on some lawmakers' minds.

"We don't vote every day, especially during the beginning," Martinez said. "Everyone recognizes that this is a human institution and no one will try to exploit the situation. They shouldn't. I don't think they will."

While Democratic and Republican leaders spoke of working through the next 30 days, long-term scenarios were spawned by Lujan's announcement, although few legislators wanted to talk publicly about them.

With his decision not to seek re-election. Lujan sets up a potential fight for the speakership in the coming months.

The House Speaker is the Legislature's most powerful legislative post, controlling committee chairmanships, deciding how many committees a bill must go through and what legislation gets heard on the House floor.

As Speaker, Lujan has proven an adept survivor, surviving two challenges during his 11-year tenure.

One challenge came from Martinez in 2006, which Lujan successfully fought off when Democratic lawmakers supported continuing his leadership during a closed-door meeting prior to the 2007 legislative session. The other challenge happened last year when Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, challenged Lujan. That race lasted until the first day of the 2011 legislative session.

Neither Martinez nor Cervantes wanted to talk about their plans Tuesday, if any, to run for the House's top spot next year.

"It's too early," Martinez said.

Too many variables are in play to know what will happen in the next few months, especially with the 2012 elections around the corner, Cervantes said. As is the case every four years, all 112 legislative seats will be up for grabs.

"There's an assumption that I'd get re-elected," the Las Cruces Democrat said. "The assumption is that the Democrats would be electing the next speaker."

Cervantes was referring to the GOP's desire to win enough seats in the November election to take control of the House for the first time in decades.

Currently, the Democrats hold their smallest majority in decades in the House, with 36 lawmakers to 33 Republicans and one independent.

If Republicans were to win a majority in the House, the GOP likely would control the vote for speakership. Taylor said he'd be interested in running for the post. But it was too far off to consider now, he said.

Most lawmakers agreed that no one seeking the speakership would use the 30-day session to lobby his or her colleagues. And Santa Fe Democrat Luciano "Lucky" Varela offered some advice for any lawmaker dared try.

"Before we talk about leadership, let's get through the elections," Varela said.

Contact Trip Jennings at 986-3050 or at tjennings@sfnewmexican.com.

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