OLYMPIA, March 4. – On the heels of a surprise move to take over the Senate floor last Friday, Democrats seem to be hinting they may be interested in trying it again – perhaps to revive an abortion-related measure that has stalled in the upper chamber.
And given the rumblings of discontent that have been heard all session long in the Senate, the doings of the last few days are enough to make anyone wonder if there is something odd in the air during the final days of this year’s regular session. Last week, in addition to the unsuccessful 9th Order motion in Senate, Democratic amendments unexpectedly hung during two budget debates. Just before committee cutoff last week in the Senate Government Operations Committee, chaired by Republican maverick Pam Roach, a few votes raised eyebrows. And on Monday came an odd “shadow hearing” staged by Democrats who say they are frustrated that the largely-Republican Senate majority coalition has not permitted a vote on the abortion bill.
At this point it doesn’t add up to much. But Democrats are hinting that there might be more moves to take over the floor, and that there may be a few members of the Majority Coalition Caucus who will be willing to help.
“There is so much unfinished business that the Republicans have not brought to the floor that yes, there could be more 9th Order moves,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, during a meeting with reporters Monday. She added, “You take a look at what they have bottled up in committees and yes, if there is an opportunity to make sure that our citizens know what the Republican majority is really holding back, that opportunity will be used, because it is the important to the citizens of the state. …I can say on certain issues, I believe we will have some support from the Republican caucus.”
Hard to say how it is all going to play out – but it does show that the solid voting patterns that have given the Majority Coalition Caucus firm control of the Senate for more than a year are being tested right now. And it might make you think the Senate is going to bear some watching in the nine days that remain of this year’s session.
Odd Votes in Senate
The thing you have to remember is that a move to take over the floor – a motion for the “9th Order of Business” – is something that at the statehouse is rather like a declaration of nuclear war. The motion allows bills to be moved from committees to the floor of the Senate, bypassing the usual process of committee votes and leadership decisions that determine which bills advance. But really, the 9th Order is a tool generally used by minority parties when the time seems right to strike, when there might be a member or two on the other side who is ready to vote with the other team. And when it happens, all hell usually breaks loose – as happened two years ago, when three Democratic members bolted and voted with Republicans to advance a GOP-written budget bill to the floor. That 2012 vote turned control of the Senate upside down, gave the coalition of Republicans and Democrats the upper hand, and set the stage for the formal takeover of the current Majority Coalition Caucus in the 2013 legislative session.
Once a minority party wins on a 9th Order motion, anything can happen – if support is there, the minority party can run the table as in a game of pool, plucking one dead bill after another out of committee and passing them lickety split while the majority howls, denounces the unfairness of it all, or simply looks on with a slack-jawed expression.
So the motion isn’t used lightly – generally deals must be struck in advance – and seldom does it come unless there is some reason to believe that it will be successful. Last week’s move on the floor of the Senate had the feeling of a putsch that failed for lack of preparation. It came during a sudden opportunity during a debate on the capital budget, a rather routine low-wattage argument that most reporters ignored. During a lull in action, Nelson moved for the 9th Order to relieve the Financial Institutions, Insurance and Housing Committee of a bill that would have continued a fee that provides money for public housing programs. The motion failed along caucus lines, all 26 members of the Majority Coalition voting no, and all 23 members of the Democratic Caucus voting yes.
Speculation Centers on Benton and Roach
It does make you wonder if a greater game is afoot. Earlier in Friday’s capital budget debate, and during a vote Thursday on the supplemental operating budget in the Senate, Democratic amendments unexpectedly hung, after rulings by Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. Here the subject matter isn’t as important as the process. The first happened on a voice vote – Owen ruled that the Ds had won. A stunned Majority Caucus Leader Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said afterward, “We’re going to have to talk to the lieutenant governor about that.”
The recording of Friday’s capital budget debate shows that another Democratic amendment hung on a voice vote — again, virtually unheard of. On the next amendment, Roach, R-Auburn, announced she was voting with the Ds. Before Owen could rule on another voice vote, members of the majority coalition called for a “division,” and Owen asked members to stand so that he could count heads. What happened next was unusual to the extreme: Owen declared that the chamber was evenly divided – the chamber was split 24-24. Yet all 49 members were present. That meant one of the members was missing from the floor. Observers say the missing member was Don Benton, R-Vancouver. Owen cast a tiebreaking vote to pass the amendment and brought his gavel down.
Immediately members of the majority coalition moved to defer consideration of the bill – that is the standard parliamentary move when things don’t appear to be under control. That’s when Nelson made her move to take over the floor. On that motion there was a roll call. The recording shows that Benton was not present on the floor when his name was called. The vote was held open until all members could be found — members are required to cast votes on roll calls when they are present in the chamber. The recording shows Benton was the last to vote. A legislative subtlety, perhaps. Though one widely noted.
Republicans Roach and Benton, among the more conservative members of the caucus, have been critical of the leadership of the Majority Coalition this session. Both voted no when leaders decided to advance the Real Hope Act to the floor without a committee hearing – the bill that provides college financial aid to the children of illegal immigrants. Benton called Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, “the worst majority leader in 20 years.”
Meanwhile, Roach has a decided independent streak, and sometimes she has been as much a thorn in the side of her own party as the other team. “I don’t know that maverick is the right word,” she said last month after voting against her caucus on a teacher-evaluation bill. “I’m not beholden to any caucus. I’m beholden to only one group, and that is the people who elected me. I think they are happy with my reputation. I’ve had some very tough races and people put a lot of money into trying to defeat me, but somehow I am still here by the grace of my voters.”
Last week, as Roach’s bills were dying right and left in the Senate, her government operations committee voted out a Voting Rights Act that would make it easier for minority groups to sue to overturn the results of elections. The measure is generally is opposed by Roach’s own party; in ordinary times it appeared a sure bet to remain bottled up in committee. Benton, a member of the committee, voted yes as well.
Abortion Bill is Flashpoint
A curious hearing in the Senate Monday offers an illustration of the strangeness in the air – and it points to a long-stalled abortion bill as a possible subject for future 9th Order action. It was an odd spectacle indeed, a hearing that really wasn’t a hearing – because, Democrats say, the other team won’t hold one. They held their “briefing” in a vacant hearing room, before an all-Democrat panel of senators.
“They are holding back legislation that is important to the citizens of the state,” Nelson said. “One is the Reproductive Parity Act – they have had it bottled up for two years, and that is unacceptable.”
The measure is basically an abortion-mandate bill that requires health insurance companies to cover abortion if they provide maternity services. The case for the bill is a bit murky – nearly all insurers cover abortion, though some, like Group Health, do so through informal means. There have been no cases cited in which women have been denied abortions for lack of insurance coverage. Nor has any other state seen the need to pass such a law.
But the bill is a top priority for abortion-rights groups like Planned Parenthood, and while it has sailed easily through the Democrat-controlled House, it has slammed into a brick wall in the Senate. Though it might pick up a few votes from swing-district Republicans in the Seattle suburbs, where abortion is the kind of issue that might persuade fence-sitting voters, Majority Coalition leaders have been reluctant to bring the matter to a vote, seeing it as wedge-issue politics that aims to divide their unity. This year the bill didn’t even get a hearing in the Senate. Health Care chairwoman Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, notes that a federal budget proviso, the so-called “Weldon Amendment,” has since 2004 raised the prospect that federal human-services funds for Washington could be terminated if the state discriminates against insurance companies that do not cover abortion. Some $6 billion that flows to the state could be blocked. “There is no way I’m going to jeopardize that,” she said.
The point is a matter of dispute – Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler asserted during Monday’s briefing that there is no problem, but the wording of the Weldon Amendment is clear, and numerous legal authorities and members of Congress have written to lawmakers warning that the state risks losing billions if Washington passes such a law. The latest version of the bill declares it to be null and void if the Weldon Amendment is a problem – but then you have to wonder whether the bill has any point, Becker says. “It sounds like the bill is a solution in search of a problem,” she says.
Democrats say they would like to find some way to bring the measure to the floor – precisely the sort of thing that might be accomplished with a 9th Order motion. And that could mean one of the strangest outcomes of all. Will conservative dissatisfaction lead to a Senate-floor free-for-all to pass a bill that expands abortion mandates? Say what you want about politics and strange bedfellows — it shows why these are interesting times in the Senate.