North Carolina Republicans try to strip powers from incoming Democratic governor

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RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature is moving to strip powers from the state's incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, three weeks before he is to succeed a Republican in the executive mansion.

Lawmakers on Thursday began debating a bill to require Senate confirmation for cabinet appointments, reduce by 1,200 the number of state employees the governor can hire and fire at will, and eliminate the governor's power to pick University of North Carolina trustees.

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North Carolina Governor's race

Candidates for Governor of North Carolina, from left, Democrat Roy Cooper and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, debate at WRAL studios in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.

(Chris Seward/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)

North Carolina Governor-elect Roy Cooper speaks to supporters at a victory rally the day after his Republican opponent and incumbent Pat McCrory conceded in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., December 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Drake)

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory tells supporters that the election results of his contest against Democratic challenger Roy Cooper will be contested, while his wife Ann looks on, in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S. November 9, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Drake)

North Carolina Governor-elect Roy Cooper speaks to supporters at a victory rally the day after his Republican opponent and incumbent Pat McCrory conceded in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., December 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Drake)

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory arrives at Trump Tower on December 7, 2016 in New York City. Potential members of President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet have been meeting with him and his transition team of the last few weeks.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, candidate for governor, speaks to supporters ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina November 7, 2016.

(REUTERS/Chris Keane)

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory speaks during a news conference at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C.

(David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)

North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper speaks during Get Out the Vote at The Fillmore Charlotte on November 6, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

(Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images)

Roy Cooper greets supporters during an election party hosted by the North Carolina Democratic Party at the Raleigh Marriott City Center in downtown Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

(Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)

Candidates for Governor of North Carolina, from left, Libertarian Lon Cecil, Democrat Roy Cooper, and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory debate at WRAL studios in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.

(Chris Seward/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)

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The legislation and related bills came as a surprise, filed late on Wednesday on the heels of a special "lame duck" session of the General Assembly called to consider relief for Hurricane Matthew victims.

Cooper, to be sworn in on Jan. 7 after defeating incumbent Republican Pat McCrory by 10,000 votes last month, said the proposals are aimed at holding him back.

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"Most people might think that this is a partisan power grab, but it is really more ominous," Cooper said at a news conference in Raleigh on Thursday. "This is about thwarting the governor's ability to move us forward on education and healthcare and clean air and water."

Cooper, currently state attorney general, said his office is reviewing the proposals and will sue if lawmakers approve any measures he believes are unconstitutional.

McCrory's office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would sign the legislation.

Republican lawmakers called the changes justified by the state's constitution. Senate confirmation hearings were held earlier in the state's history, they said.

"This bill is a good step forward in reasserting legislative authority vested by the constitution and entrusted to the members of this body," Representative David Lewis, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, said during a debate on Thursday.

A House of Representatives committee, in an unrecorded voice vote, advanced the bill on Thursday, as about 100 people gathered at the legislature to demonstrate against the proposals.

The Senate debated a separate measure that would weaken the governor's control over the state elections board, changing it from a five-member panel appointed by the governor to an eight-member panel with only half the members appointed by him.

Protesters who chanted "You work for us" and other slogans were cleared out of the Senate chamber after legislative leaders said they were disrupting debate on the bill.

North Carolina, the ninth most-populous U.S. state, has been roiled by sharp political divisions. The state voted for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 and then turned to the right, electing McCrory in 2012 and Republican super-majorities in its state legislature.

The state became a target of boycotts by companies, musicians and sports leagues after it passed a law this year restricting bathroom access for transgender people in government buildings and public schools.

(Reporting by Marti Maguire; Writing by David Ingram; Editing by Dan Grebler and Steve Orlofsky)

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