EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. — Eleven of the 32 Republicans in the Mississippi Senate said Tuesday that they're forming a conservative coalition to help evaluate bills.
"We are not disgruntled. We are not unhappy. We are not rogue. We are not covert. We are not subversive," Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, the coalition chairman, said in announcing the group.
However, it's been one of the worst-kept secrets at the Capitol the past few months that some senators who aren't close to Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have allied with each other.
McDaniel said the coalition is inviting colleagues to join, but it's unclear whether that will happen.
During a Capitol news conference, McDaniel was asked why there's a need to form a conservative coalition in a largely conservative, 52-member Senate. He said coalition members will help each other research and understand bills before the full Senate votes on them. That's the role of legislative committees that have members with different political viewpoints.
McDaniel also said: "All Republicans may not be conservative, just as all Democrats may not be liberal."
The coalition already weighed in against one of Reeves' major priorities in the 2013 regular session. Of the 11 members in the coalition, 10 voted against the final version of a bill that put state money into prekindergarten programs, while the 11th was absent and didn't vote. McDaniel was among the leaders of the opposition during that floor debate. Every Democrat in the Senate voted for the bill.
The conservative coalition has eight freshmen, and three senators who've served longer but were not appointed to top leadership posts by Reeves, who's in his first term as the Senate's presiding officer.
McDaniel, an attorney in his second Senate term, is often mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office such as U.S. senator. During the 2011 election, he supported Reeves' Republican primary opponent, then-Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport.
Hewes said during the campaign that if he were elected lieutenant governor, he would appoint McDaniel as chairman of one the most powerful Senate committees, Judiciary A. Hewes also said he would appoint Republican Sen. Michael Watson of Pascagoula as chairman of another top committee, Education. Watson, now in his second term, is one of the 11 forming the conservative coalition.
Reeves appointed McDaniel as chairman of the Elections Committee and Watson as chairman of the Constitution Committee — two assignments that carry some political weight but are not considered among the most prestigious.
Republican Sen. Terry Burton, of Newton, was at the Capitol and watched the news conference from a distance. He said he won't join the coalition.
"I think it's unwise, personally, to break off into cliques," said Burton, who's in his sixth term and is an ally of Reeves.
In addition to McDaniel and Watson, the members of the coalition announced Tuesday are third-term Sen. Perry Lee of Mendenhall and freshmen Sens. Phillip Gandy of Waynesboro, Josh Harkins of Flowood, Angela Burks Hill of Picayune, Will Longwitz of Madison, Chris Massey of Nesbit, David Parker of Olive Branch, Tony Smith of Picayune and Melanie Sojourner of Natchez.
House members have had their own conservative coalition for years, made up mostly of Republicans. They formed their group when Democrats still controlled the House. Republicans have controlled both chambers since January 2012.