How breastfeeding, a bridge and questions of courtesy tied up the Senate

As a crucial deadline neared, a senator left the floor to feed her 4-month-old. And then things got very complicated.
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Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry

As a crucial deadline neared, a senator left the floor to feed her 4-month-old. And then things got very complicated.

Did Senate Democrats know about a Republican senator breastfeeding her 4-month-old son, and when did they know it?

This question is at the center of political gamesmanship that includes management of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and a November special election for state senator for the southern Kitsap Peninsula.

All this leads to a couple extra questions. Were Senate Democrats taking unfair advantage of motherhood to get a bill passed? Were Republicans going out of their way to deny a rookie Democratic senator from passing any bill in order to make him look ineffective in the upcoming election?

The mother is Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, whose son Makaio is in Olympia with her. She sometimes leaves the Senate floor to breastfeed him.

The rookie senator is Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor. He was appointed in January to replace Derek Kilmer, who was elected to Congress. Schlicher faces Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, in a November special election for the south Kitsap Peninsula's Senate seat.

Schlicher, an emergency room doctor, has had trouble getting bills to a floor vote in the Senate — dominated by a 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority coalition. The coalition also controls most of the committees in the upper chamber. He has introduced 14 bills -- including nine addressing health issues, two addressing the ferry system, and one addressing the management of managing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which serves the Kitsap Peninsula. Only three bills made it out of committee.

One Schlicher bill called for a state studies of diabetes. It had bipartisan cosponsors, including Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, who is chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee. But Becker unexpectedly removed Schlicher's bill from the committee's agenda just before a vote to move it on, killing the bill. At that time, Schlicher said he did not know why his bill was removed at the last minute, and declined to speculate on Becker's reasons. Becker said the agenda was crowded and some bills had to be removed — declining to elaborate on why a non-controversial bill would take up more than a few minutes. 

Democrats contended Becker's move was politically motivated, but declined to elaborate. Observers pointed to the upcoming Schlicher-Angel race.

The three Schlicher bills that got out of committee with bipartisan support addressed the technicalities of involuntary mental commitments, some tweaks in the hospitals' infection-rate reporting, and trimming management costs for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

By comparison, Angel, who is on her third term as a representative, introduced 18 bills so far this session in the Democrat-dominated House. Twelve died in committee, including one to sell the naming rights of state-owned structures to corporations. The House passed three of her bills. The House Democratic leadership killed the other three.

Meanwhile Holmquist Newbry is a mother for the first time, and takes care of her child in Olympia. A tradition in the Senate is for each side to refrain from taking advantage of the other when an opposing member is not present for health reasons, with breastfeeding being considered such a reason.

On Tuesday, Holmquist left the Senate chamber to breastfeed. Shortly afterward, with a 24-24 split between the minority Democrats and the majority coalition, the Democrats sought to bring Schlicher's Tacoma Narrows Bridge bill to the floor, arguing that bill had spent too much time in limbo. The majority coalition members angrily rejected the motion, with a tie defeating such a move.

Away from the floor, Republicans told Minority Floor Leader David Frockt, D-Seattle, that the Democrats were unfairly taking advantage of Holmquist Newbry's motherly obligations, and that Schlicher's Tacoma Narrows Bridge would not get a floor vote in retaliation, Frockt said. Republicans privately confirmed the anger over the Democrats making a move while Holmquist Newbry was breastfeeding. And they said Democrats have been long aware of Holmquist Newbry's breastfeeding breaks.

Frockt and Schlicher said the Democrats did not know she had left the floor to breastfeed. Republicans don't believe that contention. Holmquist Newbry declined to comment on the matter, saying it was personal. Schlicher declined to comment on whether  Republicans are blackballing his bills. “I have to ask to what the Republican majority has against a bill that would limit administrative costs on the Tacoma Narrows and help keep tolls low for our citizens," Schlicher said.

Eleven out of 12 Senate Transportation Committee members, including five Republicans, recommended that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge measure should pass.

On Wednesday, Majority Coalition Leader Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said the bridge bill would not be sent to a full floor vote because the Washington Department of Transportation had problems with it. In testimony at a public hearing, the transportation department and the Washington State Transportation Commission were the sole opponents to Schlicher's bill, arguing it would throw a monkey wrench into future bridge budget planning.

Previously, House and Senate Republican leaders have not been fans of the Transportation Department, slamming it last week on supervisory and budget matters in an argument against a proposed gas tax hike.

"He will get his one bill," Tom said at noon Wednesday. It is a Senate tradition that every senator — even those in the minority — gets one bill passed.

Meanwhile, one of Schlicher's mental health bills that died in committee ended up added as an amendment to a mental health bill introduced by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, which passed on Wednesday, The majority coalition put Schlicher's hospital infections reporting bill on the Wednesday agenda for a floor vote, and then never allowed it to the floor without publicly giving a reason.

Finally, a half hour prior to the 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline for policy bills to pass or die, Schlicher's bill on involuntary mental commitments, ensuring greater attention to health care providers' beliefs that a patient needs treatment, was sent to the floor, where it passed 49-0. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8