The North Carolina Legislature opened its two-year session Wednesday with Republicans on the cusp of veto-proof control that will force Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to thread parliamentary needles to block abortion restrictions and other culture war issues he’s vowed to fight.

The House and Senate gaveled down a one-day organizational meeting required by law to seat all 170 lawmakers and elect leaders, in particular again picking Rep. Tim Moore as speaker and Phil Berger as Senate leader. The session — and the legislating — will begin in earnest in two weeks.

Republicans managed to win in November the two additional Senate seats needed for a 30-seat veto-proof majority in the 50-member chamber. But House Republicans fell one seat short — winning 71 of the 120 seats — giving Cooper a narrow path to block measures if the chamber’s Democrats are all present and united to sustain the second-term governor’s vetoes.

“I can see some reasonable policy changes," Sen. Jim Perry, a Lenoir County Republican entering his third term, said in light of the political dynamics. "I don’t think we’ll see anything extreme in nature because you still have to have a Democrat in the House that’s willing to cross over and vote for something."

Cooper has been extremely effective with vetoes over the past four years in which GOP margins weren’t veto-proof — no overrides from the 47 he issued.

Still, Moore, now in a record fifth term as speaker, has called the Republican seat advantage a “governing supermajority,” saying several Democrats have made clear they’ll vote with Republicans on key issues.

But House Republicans signaled narrowing Cooper's room for error even further Wednesday when they pushed through temporary operating rules that omit a longstanding requirement that chamber leaders give at least two days’ notice before conducting an override vote.

That rule has helped House Democrats marshal their forces before an override attempt. The change, which likely will be debated heavily if the omission remains in proposed permanent rules, could allow Republicans to complete an override simply because one Democrat is absent or must leave to take a phone call.

Such undertakings will be tested on topics fraught with peril such as abortion, which, in light of last June’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade, gives Republicans the opportunity to tighten North Carolina’s 20-week ban. It’s unclear whether the two chambers can agree on what new restrictions will look like. But Berger said last month it would be “a failure on the part of the General Assembly” if no legislation passed.

Cooper, who campaigned in the fall for legislative candidates largely on blocking additional abortion restrictions, has said further lowering the 20-week limit would be extreme legislation.

The Legislature and Cooper could find common ground within a two-year state government budget bill — this year’s chief task. Medicaid expansion — a recurring plea for Cooper since he became governor in 2017 — could finally happen after the chambers passed expansion legislation in 2022. The hiccup remains over reforms to expand health care offerings.

“I support expanding Medicaid," said Berger. "However, we must recognize that it is not a silver bullet. North Carolinians are saddled with some of the highest health care costs in the country.”

The Legislative Building contained more pomp compared to the 2021 opening, when COVID-19 health concerns prevented family members from joining new legislators on the House and Senate floors for the swearings-in.

This time, they sat with lawmakers as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, took their oaths of office and reelected Moore as speaker and Berger as Senate president pro tempore. Former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt — now 85 — sat on the Senate floor with his daughter, Rachel, who joined the Senate after two terms in the House.

Moore, a Kings Mountain attorney, made history by breaking a tie with two former speakers who had served four such terms. Berger also was elected by acclamation to a seventh term. He's second in longevity to predecessor Sen. Marc Basnight, a Dare County Democrat who served nine terms.

This year’s session is also likely to include additional debates over legalizing medical marijuana and sports betting. Legislators are poised to redraw state Senate districts and try again to pass a photo voter identification law in light of state Supreme Court rulings last month striking both of them down.

Redistricting completed in 2021 contributed to roughly 25% turnovers in both House and Senate membership. The influence of women at the Legislative Building may be more keenly felt in their sheer numbers — now at 50 members, a seven-seat increase compared to the past session.

First-term Rep. Kanika Brown, a Forsyth County Democrat, said she plans to advocate for gun safety, expanded health care access and abortion safeguards, while elevating women's voices from her district.

“I’m just glad to see the diversity of women that have stepped forward, you know, to take claim, to take charge and pave the way for the rest of the young ladies that’s coming behind us,” Brown said. “It’s on us to make sure they understand what’s going on and not leave them in the dark.”

Brown is one of two freshman members representing the Triad. The second is Republican Senator Eddie Settle, whose district includes parts of Alexander, Surry, Wilkes, and Yadkin counties. 

Copyright 2023 WFDD. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.

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