Support Crosscut

Senate Republicans flex their muscles against a Democratic friend

Sen. Steve Hobbs Credit: John Stang

Monday's Washington Senate floor fight was all about subtext.

Did centrist Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, irritate the Majority Coalition Caucus' conservatives enough on some issues for them to demote him from the full chairmanship of a Senate committee to a co-chairmanship with new Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard? Are the minority Senate Democrats being too paranoid? And why make a committee chairmanship change two weeks after the original chair assignments were made?

Bottom line: What did a Monday vote say about the Senate's level of partisanship?

Hobbs is a centrist who sometimes crosses party lines to vote for Republican bills. When the Majority Coalition Caucus — then consisting of 23 Republicans and two Democrats — took over the Senate in December 2012, it offered six committee chairmanships out of 15 to the minority Democrats. The Democratic caucus leaders refused that offer because those six committees were among the least important. Plus, the minority Democrats disagreed with the majority coalition's political message that the Senate had become a model of significant bipartisan cooperation.

However Hobbs accepted the chair of the Banking Institutions Committee and another centrist Democrat, Sen. Brian Hatfield of Raymond, took the Housing and Insurance Committee plus the Agriculture Committee. Sen.Tracey Eide, D- Federal Way, accepted a co-chair arrangement with Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, on the Transportation Committee.

When the current legislative session began, all three were reappointed to those positions, including Hobbs as sole chair of the banking committee.

Then rumblings surfaced that Angel — a longtime state representative who defeated Democratic incumbent Nathan Schlicher in a special election last November — would be appointed co-chair of the banking committee with Hobbs. That was confirmed Monday when the Senate approved the move 26-23 along strict caucus lines.

The majority coalition painted the change as increasing the use of Angel's extensive background in insurance, banking and business for the entire Senate. "This is not political. We're taking advantage of the talents that one of our members have," said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and one of the majority coalition's leaders.

When asked why the majority coalition did not make Angel a co-chairwoman when the session began, Parlette said: "We did not think about it then." The majority coalition does not appear to be seeking more co-chairmanships on either Hatfield's committee or any of committees with sole Republican chairs. A co-chairperson does have the power to prevent a bill from being considered by a committee.

Deputy Republican Caucus Leader Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said: “Our coalition has increased in number (from 25 to 26) since the 2013 session, and it’s reasonable to reflect that fact by increasing the number of Republicans chairing or co-chairing committees.”

But Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said, “I am alarmed by the increasing levels of partisanship from the Republican Majority."

Meanwhile, Hobbs was upset because he believes the dominant conservative wing of the Majority Coalition Caucus was behind his demotion. Hobbs, Angel and leaders of both sides all took care to say their issues were neither with Hobbs nor Angel individually.

Hobbs contended the majority coalition could have easily installed the co-chair arrangement without controversy when the session began instead of waiting two weeks to do so. He speculated that that the majority coalition's conservatives might be upset with him for unsuccessfully fighting to get a landlord-tenant bill referred to the banking and housing committee. He also speculated that the conservative wing might be mad that he supports bills to have insurance companies provide abortions coverage, to make college financial aid available to children brought here as undocumented immigrants and to restore suspended cost-of-living teacher raises — all which the coalition's conservatives oppose.

And Hobbs suggested that the coalition's conservative wing could be upset that he as a committee chairman does not fall neatly in line with its wishes. Hobbs noted that he has angered fellow Democrats in the past by crossing party lines on some matters. He believes that the majority coalitions conservatives are not used to that independence.

He also speculated that the upcoming November elections might be a factor. Both Hobbs and Angel are up for re-election in two swing districts with the Senate's narrow balance of power being the overall prize. About six swing districts could be considered in play for November. 

On the Senate floor Monday, Hobbs called out to the majority caucus's moderates to buck "the power of 13 or 14" of the coalition's conservative members. He contended if the moderates cannot break from the conservative wing on this matter, they would, in effect, announce that no moderate measures would survive the coalition's grip on the Senate. He said some moderate coalition members —afterward he named Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, Joe Fain, R- Auburn and Andy Hill, R- Redmond —recently told him that they disagreed with Hobbs' demotion but did not want to hurt the majority caucus' unity.

Parlette said there were discussions on Hobbs' demotion during caucus meetings, but the caucus rules forbid members from publicly discussing internal differences.

Last year, the majority coalition leaders would not allow floor votes of the Reproductive Parity Act and the immigrant-student DREAM Act bills despite the fact that enough of its moderates support those measures to ensure that they and the minority Democrats would have passed those bills. But both sides in the House and Senate use a strong unwritten rule that all caucus members vote with their caucuses on "procedural matters" to prevent bills. Leaders on the majority sides use that rule to prevent bills they don't like from passing with a majority of the floor votes.

One consequence is that the majority coalition legislators who call themselves moderate are compiling strong conservative voting records going into the November elections in their swing districts. In another wrinkle, Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch — the two Democrats in the majority coalition— broke that unwritten procedural rule in 2012, when they were still voting with Democrats, to give the then-minority Republican a majority to pass a GOP Senate budget.

While the debate about whether partisanship is increasing will continue, this is the second controversial time majority coalition leaders have made a demotion recently. Without telling their Democrat counterparts on the appropriate supervising committee, the coalition leaders demoted Richard Rodger, the Senate committee services director, and Sherry McNamara, deputy committee services director, in December for reasons never made public. The pair was in charge of the non-partisan staffs that serve each Senate committee.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

Support Crosscut