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Despite the Utah Republican Party lawsuit to overturn a new law that changes how political parties select nominees, GOP senators are downplaying chances that the Legislature will scrap the compromise adopted in last year's SB54.
Even Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, who is sponsoring the bills to amend SB54, said Wednesday that the odds of passing them are "not real high."
Still, a federal judge on Wednesday postponed a hearing on the Republican Party's court challenge to the law until after the Legislature ends. U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said any changes to the law made by lawmakers would affect legal arguments in the lawsuit the party filed that claims the law violates its constitutional rights.
Nuffer set a hearing on April 10 on the party's request for an injunction halting implementation of the law, saying he saw to imminent harm to the party by the law.
Senate Republicans held a closed-door caucus on Tuesday where they discussed SB54, and efforts to overturn it. Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said the caucus took no stand, and it might be premature to gauge where senators as a group stand.
But Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsor of SB54, said that a majority of senators supported that bill last year, and after the discussion, "I don't expect the body to do any differently this year."
He noted that SB54 was a compromise that led supporters of the Count My Vote ballot initiative to drop their efforts to switch to a system of choosing party nominees through a direct primary.
SB54 allows candidates to appear on a primary ballot if they collect enough signatures, but also preserves the caucus-convention system to allow candidates to qualify for the ballot through party conventions.
Bramble said trying to overturn the compromise after just a year and after Count My Vote abandoned its initiative drive "may be legal, but there is a question of whether it is moral."
Jenkins said parties should be allowed to choose for themselves how to select their nominees, so he is pushing the bills to change SB54. But he also says he sees plenty of opposition, and acknowledged the chance of passage are "not real high."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he was among the team that negotiated SB54. So "in my personal vote, I would be pretty resistant to any change."
He adds that he would want any change to SB54 "to be an improvement," rather than an abandonment.
Lawmakers have discussed some such tweaking, including delaying SB54, which is set to be in effect for the 2016 election, and clarifying what happens if someone wins a plurality in the primary with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Okerlund said he has not firmly made up his mind on the issue and looks forward to debate on it, but he leans toward keeping SB54 intact because it was a compromise "we did last year in good faith."
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the Senate Democratic caucus has not yet discussed the issue. Democrats believe primaries should be open to unaffiliated voters, he said, "but I also believe personally that parties should be the ones who are making the decisions on who their candidates are."
Tom Harvey contributed to this report.