Personality conflicts and ideological disputes among Republican lawmakers have led to two of them being banned from the party caucus.
Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, are no longer welcome among the other 49 legislators in the House Republican caucus.
Russell hasn't attended caucus meetings yet this session, though he says he was planning on returning until the ban was issued. But Nelson's exile is acrimonious and contested, the culmination of monthsof feuding between the first-term gadfly and GOP leadership.
Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City, said the final straw was an angry dispute between Nelson and an unnamed lawmaker earlier this week.
"I am not going to condone the conduct he engaged in toward another member of the Legislature very publicly. It's just not acceptable," Lust said.
Nelson admitted to saying things he wasn't "proud" of in a post-session argument this week but insisted that the accusations were trumped up.
"They're simply concocting things as character assassination," Nelson said. "They've never asked me what happened. They've never allowed me to explain what the conversation was about or my side of the conversation."
A caucus is an organizational group of lawmakers of the same party.
Caucuses typically meet every day before the afternoon legislative session, to share information and discuss party priorities.
Russell said he had spent caucus time doing research in the state Supreme Court law library, and that he frequently doesn't attend caucus early in the session. He said he was planning on coming back to caucus after Lust asked him to, until being surprised with a ban.
"My understanding of the caucus situation is, it's something where you can voluntarily participate," Russell said. "When Dave (Lust) ran to be leader of our caucus, he never said that he would be enforcing some rule that we had to be there every day or we had to have permission not to be there."
So far, Russell said neither Lust nor any other leaders have told him directly he's not welcome. All information he's gotten has been second- or third-hand, from other lawmakers or members of the media.
Despite his frustration, Russell said he has hopes his dispute can be mended.
"I think that there's a chance for reconciliation here. I really do," he said.
Nelson, however, is facing worse consequences than being barred from the caucus. House Speaker Val Rausch, R-Big Stone City, moved Nelson's seat away from other Republican lawmakers. Rausch said he's considering taking Nelson off one or more of his committees, and on Thursday Rausch refused to recognize Nelson when he wanted to speak during a floor debate.
"The only right you have as an elected official is the right to vote on bills," Rausch said. "Everything else is a privilege. As your behavior warrants, so does your privileges."
Russell, Rausch said, hasn't "behaved disruptively" and won't be punished, even though he's no longer part of the Republican caucus. But Rausch accused Nelson of exercising a "lack of control" in his relations with other lawmakers.
In turn, Nelson accused Rausch of acting like a "dictator" and exceeding his authority.
"Rep. Rausch does not have authority to punish any legislator," Nelson said. "In order for a legislator to be punished or censured, the full house has to investigate the charges against them."
House rules, Nelson said, require the Speaker to call on the first member who stands up, making Rausch refusing to recognize him a violation, he said. Rausch said speaking during debates is a privilege and that he might continue to refuse to recognize Nelson unless he agrees to meet with him and discuss the issue.
Nelson has been feuding with Republican leadership since the end of last year's Legislature. As the dispute accelerated, Nelson accused Lust, Rausch and others of impropriety and misconduct. His accusation led to an investigation by a legislative panel that dismissed the charges, though Nelson criticized that judgment as a whitewash.
Both Lust and Rausch denied that this week's actions were retribution for Nelson's earlier charges.
"We had moved beyond that the first caucus meeting we had," Lust said. "This has absolutely nothing to do with that situation."
Nelson insisted that retaliation was the only explanation.
"It's clear that they want my head on a spike," he said.
Lust, in contrast, said he took his actions only as a "last resort."
"I have been very patient, as has our caucus," Lust said.
Nelson hasn't decided what his next step is - whether he'll try to reconcile with Republican leaders, escalate his conflict, or follow a path somewhere in between.
He and Russell have reserved a room to meet on their own as a miniature caucus on Monday, to discuss bills among themselves and anyone else who wants to attend. But neither of the two has committed to organizing their own formal caucus, or to forming a tactical alliance with the House Democratic caucus.
The Legislature reconvenes on Monday, Jan. 30.
Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or email@example.com