There was no pomp or ceremony on Thursday when Gov. Jay Inslee sat down with the Democrat and Republican leaders of the House and Senate to talk budget.
Rather, the state’s chief executive and four caucus honchos tried to figure out what routes to take — and which to avoid — to reach agreement in the 18 days left before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.
What should be apparent, though maybe not admitted in this particular gathering, is neither majority party enjoys much bargaining advantage at the outset of this year’s negotiations because the balance of power in each chamber is, well, pretty balanced.
In the House, Democrats only outnumber Republicans 51-47. That doesn’t give Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, much extra muscle with which to try to impose his will on the process.
In the Senate, Republicans operate with a 26-23 edge on Democrats. (The Republican Caucus has 25 adherents of the Grand Old Party and one centrist Democrat). That doesn’t provide Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, much extra strength to force matters his way either.
Such numeric equality fuels optimism among Olympia’s political class — sort of like what Chicago Cub fans feel this time of the season — in the ability of the House and Senate to reach the hundreds of little compromises on spending that are the guts of the 500-page spending tome.
These are the $1 million, $5 million and $10 million decisions for budgets of state agencies and the provisos for studies, task forces and reports to the Legislature.
These same insiders’ aren’t quite so effervescent about lawmakers easily resolving conflicts between the chambers on modifying the initiative for smaller class sizes, increasing state worker pay and hiking taxes.
This is where they hope House Democrats and Senate Republicans are cognizant of the thin ice on which they’ve set their bargaining stakes.
Consider the House’s position. Democrats pushed through their two-year $38.8 billion spending plan on a party line vote but have not yet passed the $1.5 billion package of tax increases needed to pay for it all.
Democrat leaders insist the votes are there and brush off repeated challenges by Republican counterparts to prove it. Democrats contend if they did pass it and sent it to the Senate for consideration it would be ignored so why go through the exercise.
Senate budget negotiators will no doubt point out this shortcoming as they look to whittle down the size of the House Democrats plan.
In the meantime, Senate negotiators are operating on weaker ground in some areas themselves, after what happened in a marathon session that began the afternoon April 2 and finished the next morning.
Senate Republicans made it harder to amend their proposed $37.8 billion budget with a rule change requiring a supermajority vote of 60 percent to pass any amendment offered on the floor. This meant passage required votes of at least 30 of the 49 senators.
This blunted the Democrats, while at the same time allowed moderate GOP members to vote for a Democrat-sponsored amendment on a controversial subject without fear it would pass or be used against them in a future campaign.
There were 32 roll call votes on Democrat-sponsored amendments. Of those 10 received 25 or more votes, which is a majority in the chamber.
A key one dealt with pay hikes for state workers. The Senate budget contained raises of $1,000 per employee per year. The amendment called for approving new contracts negotiated between the state employee unions and the governor’s office, putting it in line with the House budget.
Six Republicans joined the 23 minority Democrats to support the revision but, because of the rule, it failed 29-20. You can bet House Democrats will remind their Senate counterparts of this philosophical majority on this critical matter.
Not to be forgotten in the coming days is the importance the minority parties in each caucus will play. Their members will be engaged in the shuttle diplomacy required to reach a bipartisan deal. Let the journey of negotiations begin.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos