Power grab won’t necessarily solve anything

December 12, 2012 

Normally, when two Democrats join forces with 23 Republicans to wrest control of a legislative chamber, it’s called a coup.

But Sen. Tim Sheldon of Mason County and Sen. Rodney Tom of Bellevue, prefer to call their deal to vote with Republicans on a new power-sharing structure for the state Senate a coalition.

It is anything but a coalition, of course. Tom was a Republican until 2006 when he switched parties. Sheldon runs as a Democrat, but has always voted independently to reflect his district’s conservative views.

A real coalition would have been negotiated, with a balance of members from each party. This was a takeover, plain and simple, proving that anything can and does happen in politics.

Whatever you call it, Republican senators now control the Senate, aided by Sheldon and Tom.

That means Republicans will take the chairs of the most powerful Senate committees, including those in charge of writing the budget, health care and K-12 education. That’s not an insignificant change during a session facing a budget deficit, the task of fully funding K-12 schools and readying the state for Obamacare and Medicaid expansion.

In a gesture of bipartisanship, Democrats will chair six less influential committees, although they do get higher education. Three others will be co-chaired, but Republicans will keep a voting edge on two, because Sheldon will sit on those committees.

Establishing a one-member majority on every committee has the potential benefit of forcing bipartisan cooperation to reach consensus.

Sheldon told The Olympian editorial board on Monday that he joined the Senate’s 23 Republicans in order to avoid a “blow up” at the end of the 2013 session over the budget. Last year, Sheldon, Tom and former Sen. Jim Kastama invoked a little-known Senate rule, called the Ninth Order of Business, at the last minute to thwart the majority Democratic senators’ budget bill and advance their own.

Sheldon says having that fight for control up front will get a budget deal within the 105-day regular session.

It’s a plan with possibilities, but one unlikely to achieve. Whatever budget the Senate Republicans approve, they still have to get agreement from the state House, which is strongly held by Democrats, and whose temperament might be less than acquiescent.

A big fight at the end between the House and Senate is just as likely now, if not guaranteed.

History shows that when a single party controls state government, the Legislature more often gets its business done without a special session.

The coup will certainly temper the confidence of Democrats, some of whom have taken their long-running hold on the Legislature for granted.

Make no mistake, this was a political power play. When Don Benton, R-Vancouver, defeated his Democratic opponent this fall, narrowing the Democrats’ Senate margin to 26-23, it gave Sheldon and Tom a chance to grab power. By joining forces with the Republicans for a 25-24 edge, in exchange for the positions of majority leader (Tom) and president pro tempore (Sheldon), they staged an early, and rather shrewd coup.

Whether or not the people of Washington will benefit remains to be seen.

What’s important is the outcome. If the Republicans-Plus-Two produce a truly bipartisan budget, one that receives House approval within a regular session, this grand experiment in governing our state will have succeeded.

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