Opinion

Strange bedfellows in WA state politics | Bob Roegner

The Legislature has proven the old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows.

Three Senate Democrats voted with Senate Republicans on a procedural motion to pass a budget and send it to the House. This resulted in a stalemate that led to the current special session.

With the Democrats holding a 27-22 advantage in the Senate, the switch temporarily gave Republicans a 25-24 majority. Since the Republican budget was partially balanced by subtracting money from K-12 and higher education, it was predictably not well received in the House, where Democrats hold a 56-42 majority.

The Senate Republican motion came as something of a surprise to majority Democrats late on a Friday night without a public hearing. Some Democrats were aware what was up, but had not seen the proposal.

As of this writing, both houses are trying to find a compromise that Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire won’t veto.

There are two competing philosophies in play. Republicans want additional cuts in state government now, and would like to see those cuts become permanent in future state budgets. Democrats believe that many state services have already been cut too deeply over the last three budget cycles, and would like to retain the current, although diminished, level of service.

The bigger story, and the one that will play out over a longer time frame than the budget, is the switch of the three Democratic Senators. They didn’t switch parties. They only voted with the Republicans on the budget and will likely do so again. But the effect is to align themselves with interests counter to their party’s rank-and-file goals. Many Democrats are not happy.

Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) has always been very conservative. Even though he usually votes with the Democrats on process matters, he can’t be counted on for policy issues. That is why Democrats were glad when they got to 27 votes, as it gave them a two-vote cushion. Or at least they thought it did.

Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue) used to be a Republican and switched parties. The Democrats were glad to have him because of the cushion his vote helped provide. Tom lost some credibility in his new party two years ago when he helped write the Democratic budget and then voted against it. Some speculated that Tom saw the Eastside starting to slide toward the Democrats and wanted to get ahead of the curve by switching parties. Others believe he is comfortable with most Democratic viewpoints, but is still conservative on fiscal matters.

Sen. Jim Kastama (D-Puyallup) was a bigger surprise. Not that he would consider supporting a Republican budget, but he had already announced he was running for Secretary of State. The applause you hear is from Democratic contenders Greg Nickels and Kathleen Drew, who are also running for Secretary of State and are the likely beneficiaries of primary Democratic voters who might have gone for Kastama.

While Kastama might be trying to distance himself from the party to attract independent voters, it seems more likely this will have a negative impact on his campaign.

Republicans were calling it a bipartisan budget. Since it was done with three Senators who were AWOL, that was probably a stretch. That is how it will get played during the upcoming election season.

For many of the Senate Democrats, these three will continue to be suspect. There isn’t much the Democrats can do because their majority will likely continue to be slim after the elections this fall — assuming that they retain control of the Senate, which might be open to question.

Not only did the Republicans pull off a procedural victory by getting the three Democrats, but they were also playing the chess game by looking several moves ahead.

Once the Democrats realized what was going on and that they would lose 25-24, they likely started looking for a Republican vote to make a deal. But the Republicans were a step ahead.

Republican State Sen. Pam Roach, who was asked to leave the Republican caucus a few years ago for behavior issues, was the logical place to look. The Republicans had already invited her to return from the cold and rejoin the caucus.

The other part of the chess game was that the Republicans never really intended to cut K-12 or higher education. They still needed 25 votes, and several Senate Republicans are supporters of K-12 and higher education, including Auburn-area Sen. Joe Fain. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) and Andy Hill (R-Kirkland) would also be in that category.

The Republican cuts were intended to establish a bargaining position that would force compromise. The Republicans’ real targets were state employees and the pension system. They want to skip a payment to the pension system and reduce future benefits. It’s an election year, and that’s not a position the Democrats are likely to be comfortable with because state employees unions tend to support Democrats.

Now the challenge is to find the right formula that will result in compromise.

For future reference, you might want to keep track of how the three Democrats get along with the rest of their party and how much the Republicans embrace the returning Roach.

 

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