Politics & Government

Bigger role for state GOP

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt says he'd never been in Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp's office before this year.

“Now I’ve been over there three or four times now,” Hewitt said. The dynamic between them is “dramatically different” from years past, he said.

It also highlights a new balance of power in Olympia – ushered in by the November elections and a state budget billions in the red – that has given Senate Republicans a bigger hand in the game and a put magnified attention at a section of moderate Democrats in the chamber.

The change in the Senate also is rippling across the Capitol and putting more pressure on Chopp, who can procedurally have a bigger command of his majority in the House, to champion issues that Democrats may not have the numbers to push in the upper chamber.

Add to that mix Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has pushed for a fiscally trim state budget this session.

Of course, politics tend to be cyclical and adherent to tradition. Senators often operate in a more independent manner than the House, which acts in a more cohesive group. Moreover, during the first half of this past decade, Democrats and Republicans were separated by small margins and even flip-flopped leads in the Senate. It wasn’t until 2006, when Democrats across the nation saw major victories, that the Republicans lost enough seats to lose any significant influence.

At the height of their power, Democrats had a 15-seat majority.

“There wasn’t even a conversation going on,” Hewitt said. But now, “you’ll get much better public policy because you have a debate now between the two parties.”

This year, Republicans have had a more critical role in writing the Senate’s proposed budgets, both the supplemental and the upcoming two-year budget, with Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, working closely.

The Senate power distribution now stands at 27-22 but that five-seat margin is a bit deceiving. A couple Democrats are fairly conservative, and there’s a group of moderate Democrats who have shown a willingness to stand with Republicans.

Some consider themselves and like-minded House members to be the “road kill caucus” because “we joke about how we get ran over from the left and the right,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.“I believe the Democratic party under Lisa Brown has become centrist,” Hobbs said. “We’re in a situation that forces us to work together because of an economic recession.”

The moderates’ first public show of influence this year happened with the issue of unemployment taxes. Lawmakers were working against a deadline imposed by Gregoire to change the law on unemployment insurance to avoid a rate spike in payroll taxes. Organized labor, meanwhile, was pushing for the package to include a bump in benefits for unemployed families.

With pressure from the GOP and the moderate Democrats, the Senate passed only the temporary tax break. The same day, though, House leadership unveiled a proposal that included a benefits increase. In the end, the House proposal, negotiated with the Senate and Gregoire, was the one that became law. Sen. Jim Kastama said he and other moderates also have a lot to do with the newly bipartisan budget talks in the Senate.

“The group is forcing a more open budget process,” said Kastama, a Puyallup Democrat.

Neither party will be able to convince all its members to support the two-year spending plan, Kastama predicted, leaving a greater role for moderates to help shape it.

As he describes it, the group of Democrats putting pressure on Senate leaders for more bipartisanship is made up of four centrists – Kastama, Hobbs, Sen. Brian Hatfield of Raymond and Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina – and self-described progressive Sen. Craig Pridemore of Vancouver.

Hewitt said Republicans will focus their influence on the issue of workers compensation, where a long political fight between organized labor and business is expected. Republicans in the Senate will also seek changes to programs like Disability Lifeline, which provides medical and mental health benefits to adults who don’t qualify for federal Medicaid money, and hands out cash grants to qualifying clients. They want to see cash grants to people in the program go away.

Hewitt said his caucus will actively court the moderate Democrats.

“I think what the middle can vary from issue to issue,” Brown said. “If a business-labor situation, like unemployment insurance or workers comp, remains polarized then the option for those in the middle, I suppose, is to pick on which side they’re on.”

Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.