Lt. Gov. Owen to start peace talks in Senate Friday

Staff writerDecember 27, 2012 

The ongoing stalemate over who is in charge of the Washington state Senate may get sorted out on neutral ground Friday morning. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen says he is convening a three-hour session with leaders of both Democratic and Republican blocs that are vying for position in the divided chamber.

“It’s not my job to dictate or tell them what to do but I have some history and I have some ideas. I think they recognize I’ve been pretty independent over the years,’’ Owen, a Democrat, said by phone today. “I think there is a good possibility of working it out. I don’t know if we’ll get everything worked out but some of it...”

The snarl is this: Democrats have 26 seats, enough to elect Sen. Ed Murray as majority leader earlier this month. But Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon members have defected to join 23 Republicans in a new Majority Coalition Caucus that plans to assume power at the legislative session’s opening on Jan. 14 with Tom as majority leader.

Murray says there is no disagreement that Tom and Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler have votes to seize control - but only after session begins and Senate rules can be changed. At the same time, failing to sort out details ahead of time for office and committee assignments could create confusion during the first week of the 105-day legislative session, which veryone expects to be difficult because of the state budget challenges. 

The Senate's uncertainty is an echo of the tumult that broke out in the House in 1963 when six Democratic dissidents joined Dan Evans’ 48-member GOP caucus to take over the chamber from Democrats and depose legendary speaker John L. O’Brien. That fight 50 years ago lasted well over a week - and hard feelings lingered much longer, as our weekend story recounted.

Faced with continued questions about who gets what office and when, Murray said last week he would seek out Owen’s help, which Tom immediately welcomed. Murray also said last week he was planning to abandon claims to office space usually given to a caucus leader in the Legislative Building, and he would look for a small office in another nearby building.

The cross-party coalition led by Tom is rare, and it even drew a story about it in the New York Times this morning.

But Tom’s teaming up with Republicans, led by GOP Sen. Mark Schoelser of Ritzville, is really just the latest turn for the maverick Democrat - as well as for conservatives in the Senate who teamed up to hijack the budget-writing process in March.

As the Seattle Times reported over the weekend, Tom is a controversial figure who has detractors on both sides of the aisle. He is a former Republican who left that party over its views on social issues but who also favors fiscal restraint and his coalition is on record as  opposing tax hikes, despite a proposal last week by lame duck Gov. Chris Gregoire to raise  taxes on fuel and junk food, as well as extend business taxes set to expire June 30.

Owen said he has talked with the Senate parties individually and thinks the two sides - the new and old majorities - are not so far apart. “Some of it is not understanding exactly - or misinterpreting - different issues,” he said, explaining there is a question about how coalition members are being counted.

For instance, the coalition has talked bipartisan power-sharing in the Senate - giving six committee chairmanships to Democrats and sharing three more, while keeping the more vital committees such as Rules, Ways and Means, and Education for the coalition.

But if Republicans have 10 seats on Rules and Democrats have nine, and the nine include Sheldon and Tom, then the Democrats find themselves in a “supermijority,” as Senate Democratic Caucus chair Karen Fraser of Thurston County put it.

“First thing you have to do is recognize you have a majority and a minority and quit calling them a Republican or a Democrat,’’ Owen said. “I don’t think Sen. Tom is considering himself or Sen. Sheldon as part of the Democrats (for purpose of counting committee membership). … You can’t play on both teams. You’ve got to pick a team you’re playing on and be counted there.’’

Friday morning's talks start at 8 and include four coalition and three Democratic minority members.

We'll see who agrees with the Senate's presiding officer.

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