Minority Republicans have seized control of the Washington Senate floor after three rebel Democrats joined them in a parliamentary maneuver late this afternoon. The subsequent scramble killed a series of bills Democrats were preparing to vote on before the 5 p.m. cutoff – including a bill requiring insurance companies to cover abortion.
But the fireworks continue, and Democratic Sen. Ed Murray says the blow-up is going to send lawmakers into special session. After the GOP managed to pull the budget and three other bottled-up bills directly to the floor, the Senate is now stalled – in what is turning into a long-winded fight over the GOP’s version of the budget.
For most of an hour, the roughly 235-page budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire was read aloud by Senate clerks (who took turns as their vocal cords tire). If that had been finished, a full 234-page amendment crafted by Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli could have been read – but Democratic Floor Leader Tracey Eide has halted the reading after 34 pages.
The long reading was the result of Democrats resisting a push straight to a floor vote on the Republican budget – before it had a hearing or members had even read it.
Sen. Eide invoked Rule 64, saying it was unfair to require a vote on a budget bill that most members had never read. Other members warned there could be cuts that affect foster children and other programs.
And Democrats, who have shown a willingness to hear bills in committee on short notice in recent years, complained that too little notice was given and that the public would not have a chance to comment on the legislation.
But Republicans are making a point. And they say their approach to the budget is saving the safety net for vulnerable people, protecting so-called “critical access” hospitals and leaving a much larger reserve than Senate Democrats. They also avoid a gimmick used by Democrats to delay $330 million in payments to school districts until the next budget cycle.
But the GOP delays funding in one area, skipping a $130 million payment into the state’s two under-funded pension plans (Teachers Retirement System 1 and Public Employees Retirement System 1). And it kills off medical coverage in the Disability Lifeline for people temporarily unable to work, and it trims $44 million from K-12 education, $30 million from higher education and $311 million from social services including welfare.
“We’d got our votes lined up so we knew we could do this,” Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla told reporters, describing it as a product of frustration. “Once you analyze this (alternative) budget, people are going to like it.”
Hewitt said Democrats don’t have 25 votes to move their version of the budget out of the Ways and Means Committee on Saturday afternoon, and Republicans didn’t either. So the time was right to push the matter to the floor after seeing GOP ideas snubbed in a budget the Democrats rolled out on Tuesday.
“It’s very hard for me to listen to (complaints about short notice). We’ve been down here since December, trying to work together, exactly like we did last year, and we had absolutely no cooperation whatsoever – none,” Hewitt said. “I’ve been telling you guys (reporters) that every week when we meet. Joe (Zarelli) has presented idea after idea and absolutely none of them were accepted. So we have chosen to take this method.’’
But the move may now force lawmakers into a special session – beyond the March 8 scheduled end of the ongoing 60-day term.
“We are going into special session,” Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle said flatly.
Zarelli disagree and said the new bipartisan majority was breaking the gridlock caused by majority Democrats’ inability to get votes for their own budget plan.
“What we are doing today is not leading us into special session. It has the potential to keep us from special session,” Zarelli explained to my reporting partner Jordan Schrader.
Murray had sharp words for Republicans, whom he said were not negotiating in good faith. He also criticized Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina and Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, who defected along with maverick Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.
Murray said Tom and Kastama had told him they were still open to voting for Democrats’ budget as long as the right reform bills were enacted. Two of Kastama’s bills – one for four-year budgeting and another to speed the elimination of wasteful programs – are stalled in the House.
As things unfold, it’s quite unclear where the GOP can take this – given that the House Democrats have large majorities and do not want to pass some of the reforms sought by Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats.
But House Republicans came over into the wings and watched the drama expectantly. “I think they’ve got 25 votes for a budget and I’m thinking it probably bodes well for the taxpayers of Washington state,’’ House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said. “If it succeeds, two things can happen: They can negotiate a solution with the speaker of the House (Frank Chopp), or maybe they take this budget that reached a bipartisan compromise and we find a bipartisan compromise in the House for a change.’’
UPDATE: Senate Democrats are loading up as many as 30 amendments to hang onto the Zarelli budget bill, according to Rachel LaCorte of The Associated Press.
Over in the House, Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, says there is no plans to act on the GOP’s “bipartisan” budget if it is passed over to the House.
Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, just put out a statement with a scalding criticism of the GOP:
“The Senate Republicans have exercised the worst abuse of power I have ever witnessed in the legislature. It says something about them that the minute they gained power, they abused it.
“They immediately moved to run over the minority on the floor by denying them the right to even see the budget bill before asking them to vote on it.
“They immediately turned their backs on the rights of the people by dismissing all calls for public testimony. Yes, the party that regularly decries the lack of transparency in the legislature cut the public out of the process completely.
“As for their budget proposal, from what little we’ve heard, it shreds the safety net, eliminates state food assistance, housing and medical care for the disabled, and continues the Republican war on women by eliminating family planning grants.”
This does not bode well for comity in the days ahead.