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Takeover From the Middle in Washington State Senate – Centrist Dems Vote With Republicans

Further Details to be Revealed at News Conference

State senators Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

OLYMPIA, Dec. 10 – It’s a done deal – the 23 Senate Republicans and two centrist Democrats are teaming up to force a power-sharing arrangement in the Legislature’s upper chamber. The deal is being announced at a news conference this morning.

It’s an arrangement that will turn the Senate upside down from the start – rather than delaying the flipover until the last minute. That’s what happened last year when three Democrats voted for a budget that had been written largely by Republicans. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the state Senate, 26-23, and they are as deeply divided on questions of leadership as ever.

Two Democrats, Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, say they will vote with the Republicans to create a bipartisan coalition to control the Senate. Two votes are enough to do the trick. Main question these past few weeks has been whether the 23 Republicans would stand together. With the announcement last week that state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, had won his race for re-election, after a recount giving him a narrow 74-vote advantage, the 26-23 split was confirmed and the next move was up to the coalition.

They’re making it this morning, staging a news conference that presumably will flesh out a few of the biggest remaining questions. Will there be participation by other Democrats? Who might serve as majority leader?

There are big implications for the course of the session – particularly where it comes to the possibility of big tax increases. Let’s just say the chances have just gotten slimmer. A news release issued by the newly-dubbed Majority Coalition Caucus immediately before the news conference fleshes out a few of the details, including a formal offer to the other team for shared committee chairmanships. The news release follows:

Bipartisan Coalition Forms Majority in Washington State Senate

“Democrat and Republican senators announced today that they have formed a Majority Coalition Caucus to lead the Senate during the 2013 legislative session. Twenty-five state senators have committed themselves to a set of principles that will guide the work of the new caucus, including:

“–promoting job growth and a vibrant economy;

“–creating a sustainable budget and living within the state’s means;

“–providing a world-class education system through reforms and enhancements;

“–governing collaboratively to protect the most vulnerable while prioritizing the needs of middle-class Washingtonians; and

“–setting priorities for state government and holding it accountable.

“’The public is hungry for Olympia to come together and work cooperatively on our most important priorities – jobs, education and the budget,’ said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue. ‘The fact that 65 percent of citizens just voted to affirm a two-thirds vote standard for raising taxes also shows they are looking for a more responsible government – especially when it comes to spending. It is time we put aside party dynamics and focus instead on the needs of all Washingtonians.’

The Majority Coalition Caucus has agreed that when the Legislature convenes next month it will form six committees with Democratic chairs, six with Republican chairs and three with co-chairs. None of the committees will have more than a one-vote margin between Republicans and Democrats.

“’People are looking for something different from what they’re seeing in the other Washington. This new caucus will conduct the Senate’s business in a truly bipartisan way, sharing committee control and governing together. It’s exactly the sort of cooperation the people of our state and our nation want to see,’ said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. ‘In the past, some of us have been on opposite sides of issues. But when it comes to prioritizing our state spending, we stand side by side. I look forward to showing that in the Senate we can put policy ahead of politics and govern in a responsible and bipartisan way.’

“The Majority Coalition Caucus’s governing principles specifically state that it is the members’ intent to operate in a bipartisan and cooperative way using a structure that fosters a truly shared leadership style.

“’The coalition of Democratic and Republican senators formed late in the 2012 session was the driving force behind an unprecedented set of reforms and a responsible budget supported by 90 percent of the Senate,’ said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. ‘The surest path to more reforms and a sustainable budget next year is for us to work as a bipartisan coalition from the get-go, investing the time up front to get it right. This approach has already worked. In 2003 the Republicans who held the Senate majority at the time named me chair of the Economic Development Committee. That bipartisan approach resulted in the inclusion of a wide variety of perspectives, good geographical representation and better legislation.’

“The 2013 legislative session begins Jan. 14.”

Avoids Chaos

The significance of the deal is that it takes the key operational decisions out of the hands of a single party. Normally the majority party makes all the important decisions – naming committee chairmen and appointing a majority leader, and dictating which bills are considered by the full Senate. That essentially shuts out the minority party entirely. Occasionally the minority party might be invited to the table if the majority has trouble rounding up votes on a particular bill – as happened in 2011, when the splintered Democratic Caucus couldn’t come to an agreement on the budget, and Republican votes were needed.

But what Tom and Sheldon are forcing is a far more formal power-sharing arrangement – a mechanism that would avoid the sort of upheaval that took place when they cast their votes with the Republicans March 2. It gets a little technical, and it all comes down to the parliamentary rules that govern the chamber. By voting for a rule change on the opening day of the session, the two Democrats and 23 Republicans could require that the majority leader and committee chairmen be named by a vote of the full floor.

Though a formal power-sharing arrangement would be new to the Senate, similar arrangements have been deployed in the House, where an even number of members have meant that occasionally that chamber will find itself in a 49-49 tie. There are precedents as well in the states of Texas, New York and Alaska. Senate Democratic leader Ed Murray of Seattle has been widely quoted saying the situation could lead to chaos, but with an important qualifier. He told Washington State Wire a week ago that organizational problems could be reduced if the two parties could negotiate an agreement about the Senate structure before opening day.

“First, it has to be mutually agreed to,” he said. “Secondly, I personally believe that somebody has to be in charge. Somebody has to be in the majority… With mutual agreement I think we can get there.”

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