Senate ‘coup’ puts Republicans in charge with Democrats’ help

As expected, two Democrats join coalition and gain promotions as Legislature opens 105-day session

bshannon@theolympian.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Washington’s Legislature opened its 105-day session Monday with a bit of friction in the Senate but few fireworks.

Two Democrats defected from their party as expected, joining 23 Republicans to vote themselves into power in the state Senate. The group elevated one of the rebels, Rodney Tom of Medina, to the top post of majority leader and the other, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, to the largely honorary position of president pro tempore.

They aren’t the only Democrats who will play roles in the new-look Senate. Members of the new minority will keep control of two committees, and Des Moines Sen. Tracey Eide will share power atop the influential panel that writes the state transportation budget.

“I think the Majority Coalition Caucus is a great opportunity for like-minded legislators of both parties – regardless of party – to work together,” said Sheldon, who will preside over Senate floor sessions in the absence of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, himself a former 35th District conservative Democrat who bucked his party in the 1980s while in the Legislature.

Sheldon said the coalition is a “new model” for lawmakers. “So many people that are partisan to the core want this effort to fail. And I’d like to prove them wrong,’’ he said.

Other Democrats described the new power structure as a “coup,” a “show-trial,” or “bipartisanship in name only.”

But Eide said the ruling coalition agreed to give her real authority, including a role in negotiations and “absolute veto power” over provisions she opposes. “It gives me some power to be at the negotiating table,” she said.

Before the 25-to-23 vote on the new rules switching majorities, the Senate rejected a competing resolution from Democrats that would have shared power equally between the two groups, including co-chairs and equal numbers of members for all committees.

Just as the disagreements in the Senate were expected, the House fulfilled expectations for a tame afternoon with the yearly speech from Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, that was light on specific policy proposals. But Chopp did outline the importance of health care – including expanding Medicaid to cover some 350,000 more adults and 80,000 more children.

Chopp, known as a masterful strategist, will have his hands full again this year managing the expectations of his large Democratic caucus as its policy ideas run into the more conservative Senate coalition. Issues dealing with gun control and women’s reproductive rights may move along in the House but could be killed in Senate committees or not even get a hearing.

In the Senate, Tom said his coalition tried to create a new structure of bipartisanship that would have put six committees under Democrats and six under Republicans, and created co-chair roles for both parties on three others.

But many Democrats refused to play along, complaining about the majority coalition’s big edge on the key committees they would control. Their decisions leave Republicans in charge of panels on energy and the environment, colleges, trade, parks and prisons.

Tacoma Democrat Jeannie Darneille declined to co-lead Human Services and Corrections with Lakewood Republican Mike Carrell, saying she expects the two to work together well, but that taking the offer would just be “adding to the sham.”

“It’s so disconcerting to hear their message about bipartisanship and then see what it really means is a swift kick in the back of the knees,” Darneille said Saturday.

And Democratic leader Ed Murray criticized the majority group Monday for not consulting his caucus on the proposed structure. But he also said Democrats would work in a bipartisan way. “We plan to try to be as effective as we can in the minority,” said Murray, D-Seattle.

Two committee chairman’s gavels did go to a pair of moderate Democrats: Brian Hatfield of Raymond, who remains as Agriculture chairman, and Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, who continues as chair of Financial Institutions and Insurance.

And Eide agreed to co-chair the Transportation Committee, although the panel won’t be split evenly; the majority coalition will have a one-vote edge.

Eide said she “agonized over” what to do but decided to accept, figuring the committee has long been one of the Senate’s centers of bipartisanship and that she would work well with the GOP co-chairman, Curtis King of Yakima.

Eide represents South King and a sliver of Pierce County, and her role could leave the region in a position of influence to shape any package of transportation taxes – if the Legislature decides to send new taxes to the voters to pay for building and maintaining roads, bridges, ferries and buses.

“She understands and appreciates the critical issues facing South Sound – Highway 167 in particular,” said new Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican. Building an extension of state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma is a top priority for the Pierce County delegation.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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