Louisiana's Republican state lawmakers are considering the extraordinary step of trying to override Gov. John Bel Edwards' emergency decision-making, even as President Donald Trump on Wednesday praised the Democratic governor's response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Some GOP legislators, primarily in the House, are trying to rally support for a rare legal maneuver that would allow them to overturn possibly some or all of the governor's disaster orders and proclamations related to the COVID-19 disease. The talks are an outgrowth of Republican displeasure with Edwards' two-week extension of the statewide stay-at-home order until mid-May.
"We're all frustrated. It's leading to conversations with the constituency back home and with the Legislature about whether the governor is making the right decisions for the state," said Representative Blake Miguez, leader of the House Republican delegation.
As those behind-the-scenes conversations continued, Edwards met Wednesday with Trump in a cordial White House session between two former foes. Trump unsuccessfully tried to keep the governor from winning reelection in November, traveling to Louisiana for anti-Edwards rallies. But since the election, the leaders have struck a conciliatory tone.
Edwards thanked Trump for aid Louisiana has received, along with the pledge of federal assistance to boost testing. The Republican president touted the "great success in Louisiana" to stem the virus spread and complimented the governor's performance, telling Edwards: "It's an honor working with you and the people of Louisiana."
Shutdown elements extended
Back in Louisiana, leaders of the majority-Republican Legislature, who had largely avoided criticizing Edwards' virus response, have started ramping up complaints. They're bristling that Edwards is maintaining the order banning most public gatherings and shuttering certain businesses through May 15 with only minor changes.
GOP lawmakers, citing skyrocketing unemployment and widespread business disruptions, had believed the governor appeared ready to loosen restrictions as Louisiana showed statewide improvement in battling the virus. Instead, Edwards dismissed Republican calls to consider a parish-by-parish or regional approach and extended his stay-at-home order.
"All we have been informed of is very broad brush strokes. That's where my members have a lot of concerns. They don't feel like they've been getting answers when they try to delve deeper into the numbers," said GOP Senate President Page Cortez.
Republicans are weighing use of a little-discussed provision in Louisiana law that allows legislators, through a written petition of a majority of either the House or Senate, to revoke a governor's disaster order. Republicans have consulted attorneys to determine how they could apply that law, if they could pick and choose what emergency orders they want to nullify and what the implications would be on federal disaster recovery aid and on-the-ground response work.
The governor's chief lawyer, Matthew Block, wrote to legislative leaders that the action would have far-reaching implications, ending emergency unemployment aid, nullifying school closures and risking the "crushing loss of federal funding." Block said the petition could jeopardize federal reimbursement for hundreds of millions in state emergency spending for virus testing sites, Louisiana National Guard assistance, a temporary hospital created at the New Orleans convention center and more.
Republicans disagree on whether they want to revoke Edwards' entire emergency declaration or to pinpoint the stay-at-home order. Neither Cortez nor Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder has offered public support for the petition, though both indicated they'd consider it.
Looking for 'unintended consequences'
"We're working on every possible solution to safely open our economy as quickly as possible and get our families back to work. One of the ideas is to override the governor's emergency declaration," Schexnayder said in a statement. "We're looking into what, if any, unintended consequences that could have."
More than 27,600 people in Louisiana have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 1,802 people have died, according to state health department data.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For others, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Edwards said he's extending the stay-at-home order because some regions — northeast Louisiana, the Baton Rouge area and Acadiana — haven't shown enough progress in fighting the virus. He said infectious disease specialists and public health experts recommended the extension.
Republicans believe Louisiana meets the White House benchmarks for the first phase of economic reopening. They said Edwards cherry-picked regional data to make a statewide decision even as he resists making regional reopening decisions.
Senate GOP leader Sharon Hewitt said she's spoken with colleagues about revoking some of Edwards' orders, but has questions about the ramifications.
"There's a lot of pent-up frustration and a lot of disappointment," Hewitt said. "We're just turning over every rock, but this one's got a lot of tentacles that have to be understood before I could really support it."
Still, the petition needs support from only a majority in one chamber. Republican Representative Alan Seabaugh told KPEL radio he feels confident a petition can get 53 supporters in a House with 68 Republicans.