Minority Republicans and two Democratic allies grabbed the steering wheel of the state Senate on Monday, announcing a power-sharing arrangement that would put members of their new coalition in the top leadership positions.
Sen. Rodney Tom, a former Republican turned Democrat from Medina, will serve as majority leader, joining Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch and all 23 Republicans in what they are calling a Majority Coalition Caucus.
“The public out there is hungry for us to come together, to work together in a collaborative manner. That is exactly what this coalition is trying to accomplish. We want a cooperative relationship and making sure we work across party lines,’’ Tom said at a news conference Monday.
But the news came as a rebuff to Senate Democrats’ earlier offer to share power by shrinking their majority to one vote on most committees among other concessions. It is far from clear if the two parties — and the Democrat-controlled House — can work well together or if the takeover is a recipe for gridlock.
There are 26 Democrats in the Senate, and 24 of them remain in the minority caucus, which gave few clues Monday about what it would do next ahead of a 105-day legislative session that starts Jan. 14 in Olympia.
“We recognize that any majority in the Senate will be an unstable one, and we are committed to forming a mutually agreed-upon way for Republicans and Democrats to work together. We don’t believe the Republicans’ take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the right way forward,” Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat previously elected majority leader by his suddenly minority caucus, said in a statement.
The coalition’s proposal gives the minority group more than Democrats had offered Republicans, but still limits them to supporting roles. Democrats would lead six mostly lower-tier committees, while Republicans would control six committees including budget-writing Ways and Means under Andy Hill of Redmond, Education under Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, Health Care under Randi Becker of Eatonville, and Government Operations under Auburn’s Pam Roach.
The GOP proposed splitting control of Human Services and Corrections, led by one Democrat and Lakewood Republican Mike Carrell. Republicans also called for splitting two other panels, but Sheldon’s membership on both could allow the coalition to effectively retain control.
Sheldon would also take over as president pro tem, presiding in the absence of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. While Tom said he would no longer caucus with Democrats in their private meetings, Sheldon indicated he may try to meet with both sides. “I’m not leaving the Democratic Party. I’m working with everybody down here,” he said.
The new job will give Becker, who represents parts of Pierce and Thurston counties, a major role in shaping the state’s implementation of federal health reform, including new insurance exchanges and a potentially huge expansion of Medicaid.
“They have appointed a chair who has I think been not very enthusiastic about implementation of health care reform,” said Sen. David Frockt of Seattle, who spoke to reporters on behalf of Democrats on Monday. Becker has voiced measured criticism of Obamacare, saying for example that it doesn’t address soaring health costs.
“I think it’s important to note this is an entirely new way of doing business in Olympia,” Becker said in a statement Monday. “This arrangement ensures viewpoints from all across the political spectrum will be considered and will lead to better policies for our region and the entire state.”
Roach, who represents parts of east Pierce and King counties, has had a fractious relationship with her party’s leadership yet gets one of the plum positions under the new arrangement.
Sanctions backed by both parties have prevented her from communicating directly with many Senate staffers, but Tom said he now expects the Senate’s Facilities and Operations Committee to lift the sanctions — just months after the committee settled a hostile-workplace lawsuit in part by recommitting to the sanctions. Tom said it’s “time to move on” from the 2010 sanctions.
As chairwoman, Roach said she would pursue embedding in the state constitution the requirement for super-majorities to raise taxes in the Legislature. Roach also said perennial bills trying to put more restrictions on signature gatherers won’t see the light of day.
Tom and Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said they organized their coalition around a few principles — promoting job growth and the economy, a sustainable budget, and a top-flight school system. Sheldon said it also puts lawmakers from more parts of the state into committee-chairman roles.
They said they also agree with Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, a Democrat who campaigned on the claim that new tax revenue was not needed to answer a state Supreme Court ruling on the funding of schools.
But the Washington Education Association quickly denounced the Senate power shift. The teachers union said Tom and Sheldon had favored spending cuts that have harmed education.
The takeover recalls a coup in March when a similar coalition of Republicans and three Democrats seized control of the budget process, leaving Democrats shell-shocked. But this time, the leaders had signaled their intent for weeks, and Democrats didn’t voice a sense of betrayal.
“Look, we can all count,” Frockt said in his news conference in the Senate wings. “We can count votes. We’re very realistic people.’’email@example.com jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com