Sen. Tom gets into blame game over a failed bill

The rule book according to the Majority Coalition Caucus leader: Democrats could have had the Dream Act if they had played ball when we were picking teams. Democrats heatedly disagree.
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Ed Murray, left, and Rodney Tom chat after a pre-session discussion of legislative issues.

The rule book according to the Majority Coalition Caucus leader: Democrats could have had the Dream Act if they had played ball when we were picking teams. Democrats heatedly disagree.

Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom says it is the Democrats’ fault that the DREAM Act for children of immigrants did not make it out of committee for a full Senate vote.

His thinking goes like this: The Democrats would not take an offered chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee in January, so a Republican DREAM Act opponent, Sen. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor, became chair.

Bailey is in Tom's majority coalition, and Tom is on the Higher Education Committee, where the DREAM Act, which would provide college financial to the children of undocumented immigrants, appeared to have the votes to get out of committee last month. Tom supports the DREAM Act, but has a policy of never telling his chairpersons how to run their committees.

The Yakima Herald-Republic reported Tom's stance on Sunday. "It would have gotten a vote,” Tom told the Herald-Republic. “If anybody’s to blame, (Democrats) had the ball in their court.”

Tom repeated that position Tuesday.

He pointed to last December and January when the majority coalition — 23 Republicans, Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch — took control of the Senate and offered the now-minority Democrats chairmanships of six committees. Those were natural resources, agriculture and water, economic development, financial institutions, higher education and environment committees.

The majority coalition offered the chair of the Higher Education Committee to liberal Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. She and several other Democrats turned down various chair offers because they contended the majority kept control of the major committees, while exiling Democrats to the lesser ones. And the majority coalition controls the Rules Committee, which is the bottleneck for bills between the committees and the full Senate.

Also Democrats did not want to add more legitimacy to the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance's claim that is a full-fledged bipartisan coalition.

"They're the ones who said higher education was a secondary committee. This shows there are no secondary committees," said Tom, D-Medina, on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, pointed the fault at Tom. "When you're the leader, it takes leadership. It's not about placing blame," Murray said.

In a written statement, Kohl-Welles said: "I am incredulous that Sen. Tom would blame the failure of popular legislation on a totally unrelated decision on my part to decline chairing the Higher Education Committee under the Majority Coalition Caucus coup. He’s the most powerful member of the Senate and yet he can’t get a bill out of committee, a committee he sits on, on a bill that he publicly stated he supported, and when he knows that a solid majority of the Senate wants to pass it off the Senate floor?"

She added: "Instead of finger-pointing, Sen. Tom should be leading. If he didn’t want to lead, he shouldn’t have asked to be the leader. Instead of wringing his hands, Sen. Tom should be rolling up his sleeves and persuading the committee chair he appointed to move the bill he claims he supports."

The DREAM Act would have provided college financial aid from the state to children of undocumented immigrants who have settled in Washington with their kids going to state schools.

Committee chair Bailey opposed it, saying the state did not have enough money to cover the extra potential college students. The House passed the bill — introduced by Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger — by a 77-20 vote, with about half of that chamber's Republicans supporting it. The arguments supporting the bill are that the kids have lived in Washington for long periods and have done well in school,  so helping them would be an economic boost to both financially hampered students and the state.

Murray criticized Tom for putting the "most extreme members of his caucus in charge of key committees."

Tom replied: "Sen. (Andy) Hill is one of the most moderate members of the caucus, and most people consider Ways & Means (which Hill chairs) as the most powerful committee in Olympia."

Among the 13 Republican chairpersons, Sens. Hill and Steve Litzow of Mercer Island can be safely considered moderates. Seven chairpersons can be safely considered as devoutly conservative -- Sens. Don Benton of Vancouver, Pam Roach of Auburn, Mike Padden of Spokane Valley, Janéa Holmquist Newbry of Moses Lake, John Braun of Centralia, Randi Becker of Eatonville, and Bailey. The other four chairs are a bit harder to define but somewhere in between on the Republican sprectrum— Sens. Kirk Pearson of Monroe, Mike Carrell of Lakewood, Doug Ericksen of Ferndale and Curtis King of Yakima.

Three moderate Democrats accepted chair offers from the majority coalition — Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens for financial institutions, Brian Hatfield of Raymond for agriculture and water, and Tracey Eide of Federal Way to be co-chair with King of transportation.

One way to revive the DREAM Act would be with the so-called "Ninth Order,” a legislative parliamentary procedure in which 25 of the 49 senators agree to take a bill that died in committee and revive it on the floor of the full Senate. With 24 minority Democrats supporting the DREAM Act, it would take only one senator crossing the aisle from the Majority Coalition Caucus to complete that parliamentary maneuver. Since Tom supports the DREAM Act, he could theoretically be the 25th vote. Tom, Sheldon and former  Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, participated in that same move in 2012 to put a Republican-oriented budget on the Senate floor and pass it.

But Tom said he will oppose a Ninth Order move this session for the DREAM Act. Such a move would unleash numerous extra bills on the Senate floor, he contended.

"Then these guys will bring back parental notification (for abortions, which died in committee). You go Ninth Order, you lose control of the bills,” Tom said.

An unwritten but strong code of conduct in the Legislature is that legislators are supposedly free to vote their consciences on bills, but must toe the party line on procedural matters.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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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