January 9th, 2013

State Rep. Joseph Souki has solidified his claim as House speaker after a private caucus on Wednesday among House Democrats.

”I will be speaker on opening day,” Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku) said. “They’ll work out the details. Everybody gave their best shot, and so now we’ll go on to the business of serving the public.”

While Souki’s coalition of dissident Democrats and Republicans has the majority necessary to control the House, the Maui Democrat is temporarily one vote shy of being able to organize among Democrats alone, a politically symbolic threshold that would make it easier for him to govern.

Maui Democrats are expected to forward three names to Gov. Neil Abercrombie this weekend or early next week to fill a House vacancy created when Gilbert Keith-Agaran was appointed to the state Senate. The appointee, who is likely to support Souki as speaker, could be named before session starts on Wednesday.

At the closed-door meeting in a third-floor conference room at the state Capitol, sources say that several Democrats were critical of Souki’s alliance with Republicans, who have been promised three committee vice chairmanships and potential capital improvement project money for their districts in return for their support. But others pointed out that Republicans were offered greater staff parity and an extra slot on the House Finance Committee when they threw their votes behind Say during a leadership fight two years ago.

After the caucus, Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Downtown-Kakaako-McCully), who would become majority leader under Souki, said the coalition intends to keep the commitment to Republicans. “I did make it clear to the members that we would honor our agreement with the Republican caucus,” he said. “We will not go back on our word on that, and there was disagreement on that point. But I think there was agreement that the Democrats would have to work together over the next two years and find ways to bring the caucus together so that this does not happen again.”

Saiki and Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho), Say’s choice as his successor, told reporters that they will meet privately over the next few days to discuss the remaining committee slots to be filled and when lawmakers can move into different offices to reflect their new roles.

Oshiro said he has not conceded the speaker post to Souki but acknowledged that Souki will likely have a majority among Democrats. Oshiro has urged Democrats to organize behind Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuuanu), freezing out Souki and avoiding the need to form a coalition with Republicans.

But Luke, a leading dissident who would become chairwoman of the House Finance Committee under Souki, has rejected Oshiro’s offer and has pledged to back Souki as speaker.

“Scott and I have committed to work, even through the weekend, to have this thing resolved as soon as possible,” Oshiro said. “There are some questions on the practical aspects of working with Republicans, but I think we’re willing to try and work through those things and have a unified caucus.”

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