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The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
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Brian Kelsey
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Frank Niceley

NASHVILLE - Republicans raised alarms on the state Senate floor Monday night about a GOP colleague's bill aimed at stripping Tennessee primary voters' ability to determine who their respective party nominees are for U.S. Senate and put it in the hands of just 132 state lawmakers.

"This bill is anti-democratic," charged Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. "This bill smells of elitism, of cronyism, and it would open up a system that was and could be in the future rife with corruption."

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, defended his proposal which would do a partial end run around the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment, approved by states in 1913, took away state legislatures' power to name U.S. senators.

The federal government hasn't functioned right ever since with exploding debt and trampling of states' sovereignty, Niceley said. He said federal spending accounted for just 7 percent of gross national product before the change.

"Since then, it's gone to 42 percent," he contended.

"We're simply changing the way that they're nominated," Niceley said. "The people still vote [in the general election]. That's the key you need to remember. The second key is Washington is out of control ... it needs some help from us."

"We've tried this for 100 years now ... and the greatest fears of our Founding Fathers have come true," Niceley argued.

The lawmaker was not deterred by critics' charges that if his bill became law, Tennessee would become an oddball among the 50 states by putting the respective Republican and Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly in charge of determining the parties' U.S. Senate nominees.

"Some people see us as a follower. I see us as a leader," Niceley retorted.

Earlier in the day, Democrats seized on what they saw as a ready-made issue to bludgeon Republicans with in 2014 legislative races.

Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, a former state senator, accused Republicans of "attempting to steal the people's right to vote."

"I'm here to tell you that Tennessee Democrats don't want to be part of the Republicans' April Fool's joke," said Herron, a former state senator.

On the Senate floor, a bill that Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey last week said had an even chance or better of passage began to unravel.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Germantown, delicately sought to thread a needle on the issue, commending both Niceley and Kelsey and noting he knows Niceley was seeking to "draw attention to very important points."

Noting that the GOP-dominated Legislature in recent years has tried to pass any number of bills on states' rights and federalism -- many of which the state attorney general has called unconstitutional -- Norris said he has raised the federalism issue with the Council of State Governments, where he is chairman-elect.

He politely asked Niceley to give lawmakers "time for our constituencies and our constituents on what we're considering. It is valid to consider our constituents who say we may be depriving them of the right to vote. I think time is on our side" to make the argument, he said.

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, said while she supported Niceley's bill, she thought voters needed time to be educated. Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, agreed.

Kelsey noted that Monday was the 100th anniversary of Tennessee adopting the 17th Amendment.

Sensing the prospects weren't looking good for passage, Niceley in the end delayed his bill until the Senate's final calendar of bills this session.

In another state Capitol development, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's limited school voucher proposal has new problems.

Last week, the governor was fending off efforts by fellow Senate Republicans to expand his plan to let parents use state and local tax dollars to let their children attend private schools, including religious schools.

Over the weekend, The Murfreesboro Post said two Republican senators from Middle Tennessee suddenly realized those religious schools could include Muslim-run institutions.

"This is an issue we must address," Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, a 4th Congressional District candidate was quoted saying. "I don't know whether we can simply amend the bill in such a way that will fix the issue at this point."

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, R-Murfeesboro, who sponsored an anti-Shariah law bill in 2009 that critics charged initially outlawed Islam, said "this issue gives me pause in voting for the governor's voucher proposal" and asked, "What's the rush? Do we need to send these proposals to summer study" committees?

Haslam brought the voucher bill this year after a task force he created recommended a limited program instead of a more expansive program passed by the GOP-run Senate in 2011. The governor, who noted fellow Republicans would come back this year whether he acted or not, wanted to control the process and last week stood firm in desire to keep it's impact small until officials have time to study it.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree or 615-255-0550.