Moving toward end game in the Legislature

Speaker Chopp, the grand master, is making a few powerful moves, but the Democrats are far from being united
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Speaker Frank Chopp leads House Democrats.

Speaker Chopp, the grand master, is making a few powerful moves, but the Democrats are far from being united

Can the Democrats, who after all run the place, get it together? Some observers in Olympia think they have rarely seen such disarray this close to the end of the regular session of the Legislature. But each day, something like a resolution of some big issues peeps out.

Yesterday it was movement toward a three-tenths of a cent sales tax increase, targeted for "long-term care, adult family care, mental health and basic health care services, and [to] mitigate the effects of the cuts to public health care," as described by Sen. Lisa Brown, the Democratic Majority Leader. House Speaker Frank Chopp, meanwhile, is moving toward the idea, saying chances of putting such a tax measure on the ballot are "better than 50-50." Still no word from the Governor.

If Brown and Chopp are starting to converge on that tax, there just might be enough new money (assuming the voters go along) to pass a budget. Without the new money, we're stuck. Republicans won't cast a single vote for a Democratic budget, and liberal Dems would fear tarring and feathering in their district if they voted for either the current House or Senate budgets, both draconian.

The standoff has been between the Senate, which is more inclined to protect education, and the House, which is full of partisans for human services and health care. In any such showdown, Chopp holds more cards, for he has a firmer control over his caucus (many of whom he hand picked and hand-elected). The Senate, as in D.C., is an assemblage of egoists.

It may also be that Gov. Gregoire, presumably working backstage in all this, is miffed at the rather open gubernatorial campaign Lisa Brown is now waging, as the darling of the Seattle liberals. If so, Gregoire may be siding with Chopp, in exchange for other goodies. (Chopp, for instance, has finally said he'll allow the Governor's plan for a deep-bore tunnel to come to a vote on the House floor as early as next week.)

Brown has scored a victory as well: getting the tax-dreading Chopp to move toward a vote on some new tax increases. Such a vote Chopp has historically equated with handing over the majority to the Republicans in the next election. As for her gubernatorial ambitions, she insists she would not run against Gregoire in 2012, but I'd say it is looking very unlikely that Gregoire could be reelected, or maybe even renominated. In a nutshell: She spent the state into this mess, and now she won't take the leadership heat for getting us out of it.

At this point, I can imagine four outcomes, in declining order of likelihood.

First is a California standoff, pushing the Legislature into weeks of special sessions until the exhausted legislators can't stand it, vote for an awful budget, and go home. Second is a hurry-up deal at the end, including a tax measure put on the ballot, with some carefully hoarded stimulus money doled out to get recalcitrant liberals to vote for the budget.(Watch, for instance, how the money for Seattle's Mercer Mess artfully reappears in the 11th hour.)

Third would be to pass a high-pain budget with the understanding that we'll all come back and enact some taxes after about six months of mounting fury by the liberal constituent groups; the pretext would be the worsening (or improving) economy. Fourth would be a deal where a few Republicans defect, at a handsome price (charter schools? public-private partnerships on major infrastructure?), providing the votes to pass the budget. The public would cheer the outbreak of bipartisanship. The caucuses would defenestrate their leaders. What an opera that would be! Ain't gonna happen.


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