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Coup leaders take state Senate for test drive

The Senate coalition leadership represents a daring experiment in listening to voters. Or, in the minority Democrats' view, a roadblock to progress.
Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, center, celebrates in 2013 after being chosen at president pro tempore by a mostly Republican vote.

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, center, celebrates in 2013 after being chosen at president pro tempore by a mostly Republican vote. Tom James/Crosscut

Sen. Rodney Tom (lower left) listens during a conversation on the Senate floor with Ed Murray.

Sen. Rodney Tom (lower left) listens during a conversation on the Senate floor with Ed Murray. Tom James/Crosscut

Sen. Ed Murray speaks to the state Senate on opening day.

Sen. Ed Murray speaks to the state Senate on opening day. Tom James/Crosscut

Democratic defector Rodney Tom

Democratic defector Rodney Tom John Stang

The coup is complete.

Twenty-three Republican and two Democrat senators formally took control of Washington's Senate on Monday with the remaining Democrats kicking and screaming, to the degree such things can happen within the dignified decorum of the chamber. Twenty-five is a Senate majority.

The coup threatens Senate road blocks for a reproductive parity bill as well as proposals to keep beer and hospital beds tax and a 0.3 business and occupation surcharge from expiring. Taken together, those measures raise $650-$912 million a year. The new Senate majority may also thwart a Democratic proposal to tackle assault weapons

"So far, we're not off to a great start," said Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.

Republicans and their Democratic allies see their Majority Coalition Caucus approach as the best way to conduct business — and represent what they see as the wish of voters to avoid tax increases. 

Sen. Tom is the Democrat who will serve as majority leader with the coaliton's support. During a debate on committee chairmanships, he said, "If you don't have someone in control, you have chaos. ... This is not about power.This is not about control. It's about listening to the citizens of Washington."

Monday marked the official end of November's 26-23 Democrat majority with Tom, D-Bellevue, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, forming an alliance with the Republicans because of similar philosophies on budget matters. While Tom is the new majority leader, Sheldon is the new Senate president pro tempore.

This arrangement gives Republicans control of the flow of legislation in the Senate because they chair most of the committees and have a 13-8 majority — without counting Democrat Lt. Gov. Brad Owen who is also on the committee — on the Rules Committee, which decides what bills go to full Senate votes. Committee chairpersons  control what bills get hearings and can advance out of their committees. Similarly, the Republican-oriented alliance has a 13-10 majority on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which controls budget matters.  

Democrats made a last-ditch effort to get the majority alliance to appoint co-equal Democrat and Republican co-chairmen for  each committee — an attempt that they knew was doomed before Monday's go-through-the-motions debate. Much of the debate raged over which side has been more bipartisan than the other.

"We looked at co-chairs in-depth," said Tom, the Democrat who will serve as majority leader with the coaliton's support. He added, "We looked at the personalities. Not all committees can work with co-chairs."

The majority alliance offered chairmanship of six committee — natural resources, agriculture, economic development, financial institutions, higher education, and environment — to the Democrats, arguing it is highly bipartisan for the majority to offer committee chairs to the minority. The Democrats rejected that proposal as a caucus, saying that it was a a take-it-or-leave proposal with the Republicans controlling the most powerful committee. Democrats did allow party members to accept chairmanships if they wanted to as individuals. Three did: Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, chairman for agriculture, Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman for financial institutions, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, as co-chairwoman of transportation .

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma said, "I find it hard to agree that this is an unprecedented degree of cooperation ... This is a meeting between two individuals (and the Republicans). ... I worry about this 25-24 split and what it will do to the workings of the Senate."

Conway laid out a Democratic theme of recent days that is likely to be developed throughout the session: "This gives too much power to the (Republicans) in that they have the two most important committees that bring things to the floor. ... The balance in those committees does not reflect the reality of a 25-24 split."

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, said of the majority alliance: "I call them 'BINOs' — Bipartisan In Name Only."

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, was the expected majority leader until Tom and Sheldon joined the Republicans. Now minority leader, Murray said he understands there is no chance that committee chairs will allow approval of either proposals to regulate assault weapons or a Reproductive Right Parity Bill, a first-of-its-kind plan to require abortion coverage by any insurance plan that covers live births.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 7:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll know where this new "coalition" stands when I see how they respond to ALEC proposed legislation. Are they representing Washington State or are they representing corporate interests in the name of Washington State?

Amaliada

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 8:59 p.m. Inappropriate

You should save the word coup for what's happening with illegal immigration.

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 11:01 p.m. Inappropriate

23 Republicans and two former Democrats are not a coalition. This is Republicans in control of the Senate; not a coalition, and not bi-partisan.

jhande

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 1:18 a.m. Inappropriate

If Rodney Tom had given up his citizenship and taken a Russian passport, would the Democrats be as indignant? Who says this isn't about power?

simorgh

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 4:02 a.m. Inappropriate

So, GET will be targeted by Tom, the "fiscal conservative"; yet nary a word about the two billion dollars of State subsidies going to corporations, and business.?????

Two Billion? I'm waiting for Leader Tom to take stand on the nearly $50 billion that you and I will so graciously provide for individuals AND Corporations this year alone...let alone nearly $100 billion over the biennia...we bite and gnash teeth about a billion dollar deficit, yet support nearly $100 billion this biennia in tax cuts...oops I mean exemptions. Over 500 of them...listed beautifully on the Dept. of Revenue website... How about just a suspension, not elimination, but a suspension of 2% of those exemptions would balance the budget.

Axing GET and ignoring exemptions? Come on, this is stewardship? Really?

Good grief...

Rich1

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 4:53 a.m. Inappropriate

At the Bellevue Town Hall meeting last week, Rodney Tom stated very clearly that the co-chairs would be equal with the chairs. This was an example he used about his committment run things in a bi-partisen way. I guess his Republican masters had a different idea. We need to change the law so this can disfiguration of the voters will can never happen again.

BrettHill

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

While I am saddened that the Democrats lost their ability to lead the Senate, I am not as indigent as others. Our state parties are historically week (and we like it that way - see the top two primary). As Tom and Sheldon are not, and never have been, beholden to their political party, they are free to caucus with whoever they choose once they are in Olympia. Both Senators were last elected in 2010 and ran under the Democratic label but, seriously, Tom was previously associated with the Republican party and Sheldon has always been a tenuous member of the Democratic Caucus. When it came time to reorganize the Senate after the 2012 elections, the Democrats got caught with their pants down. Tom and Sheldon both bolted on the budget in the last legislature. When it became clear that the Democratic "majority" was razor thin, the Democratic leadership should have talked with their recalcitrant members early to see how they could keep them in the fold, at least nominally for policy issues, and worked a grand bargain for Ways and Means. The Democrats could have held on to the flow of legislation if they had been a little more adept at negotiation.
Of course, all this intrigue may have been alleviated if Senator Benton of Clark County had not narrowly won reelection, or if Senator Mary Margaret Haugen had not lost her reelection.

DavidA

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Gee Rich1, Rueven Carlyle had a list of 251 under performing tax exemptions and breaks in the last session...but he didn't want to remove them until 2017. I guess when Democrats are in charge, taking action on tax exemptions is only in the "out years".

Cameron

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Stang - You're not off to a strong start. There's no actual news here, which should be required if you're going to avoid writing about policy or legislation. Please cultivate some sources and understand the underlying agendas and grudges if you're going to write about the politicians. A one-seat majority under a Democrat created with a new Republican leader (Schoesler) could come undone at the seams at any minute.
And, for goodness sake, demand more from your copy editors and yourself. "Sen. Rodney is the Democrat" shouldn't have gotten by anybody. Sen. Tom is acting Majority Leader. And "putative" or even "ex-Republican House member" would belong in front of the word Democrat.

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Democrats willingness to go along to get along may have worked in a previous era when legislators actually worked for the good of their constituents. However, now that corporate rule has become the rule nationwide, it's time to take a stand Dems and speak out about the injustice of slashing the social systems that we all pay to maintain because that is the misguided agenda of the right wing.

nwcitizen

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

The Republicans are not going to renew the beer and B&O; tax, costing the state as much as a billion dollars. So how are they going to replace that revenue and fund the schools? Sheesh.

Posted Sat, Jan 19, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

They're going to fund the schools by slashing everything in the general fund, i.e., health, housing, and services. That's their standard answer to not enough revenue.

Unfortunately, one of the answers to why the Dems didn't make enough of a strategic fuss about this is that Murray doesn't care; he's running for Mayor.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

The revenue forecast will be released on March 20, not in mid-February.

ksjoblom

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 1:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry, but I second dericjones' comment. As a young journalist, Mr. Stang is in there pitching--good for him--but to really add value, he needs to dig deeper, develop and share insight into the inner workings of a fractured legislature as it reacts to a raw power-grab. This article doesn't do that, and I hope Mr. Stang will grow in the job. Crosscut also needs to get sharper teeth--this isn't leading-edge stuff, and we who support you expect more.

Seneca

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 3:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Well said. Where is the deep analysis of how fractured the Senate is. What is the likelihood of the balance of power shifting from day-to-day/vote-to-vote. Are we likely to see the re-emerrgence of the use of the Ninth Order of Business by the minority Democrats plus one additional member (Tom maybe) to push policy issues that the majority of Republicans are opposed to. What is the likelihood that this Senate is going to be able to accomplish its work?
Right now all we have is intrigue - maybe that is all there is -, but deeper analysis from some quarter is warranted.

DavidA

Posted Sat, Jan 19, 11:28 p.m. Inappropriate

The Senate is fractured only in the sense of Tea-Party Republicans and non-Tea-Party Republicans. Are you expecting the writer to look in a crystal ball to divine what will be happening the last week of this session? If you want deeper analysis and timelier news, read the Slog and watch TVW.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:03 p.m. Inappropriate

The senate Democrats have only themselves to blame. They've had plenty of chances to act in a responsible manner and have failed. How many special sessions does it take to pass legislation?

Djinn

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 5:57 a.m. Inappropriate

They pass legislation EVERY session. TONS of it. Bills are handed -ready to go - from special interests to our "representatives". Oh, they can pass legislation. It's paying for all that legislation that they have a hard time doing.

I forget who said it, but: A government's level of corruption is directly proportionate to the number of laws it has on the books.

BlueLight

Posted Sat, Jan 19, 11:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Cliches don't prove points, Bluelight.

sarah90

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