Democrats will outnumber Republicans next year in a closely divided state Senate, but if Sens. Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom have their way, the two parties will have to share power in unprecedented fashion.
Last session, the two conservative Democrats and one other, departing Sen. Jim Kastama, joined Republicans to form a “philosophical majority” and advance their own budget plan. Now their continued role as king-makers hinges on the re-election of Vancouver Republican Sen. Don Benton, who is down by just 16 votes in a race almost certainly headed for a recount.
If Benton wins, Tom and Sheldon have choices to make. Do they follow last session’s template of keeping Democrats in charge of the Senate and its committees, while giving Republicans de facto control over the budget? Or do they go even further and give Republicans the leadership and chairmanship jobs?
Right now, they are talking about a third option — rejecting the majority party’s slate of leaders and choosing some senators from both parties for top positions.
“I’m not looking to give any particular party the power,” said Sheldon, a Mason County Democrat who frequently votes with Republicans and flirted with switching parties in 2000. ”I’m interested in the best person to lead the committee, regardless of party.”
Normally, the Senate votes on the floor to ratify a list of committee members and chairmen chosen in private by the majority caucus. Sheldon advocates filling those jobs by taking nominations from the Senate floor. “Hopefully I can find enough votes to do it in an open way and change the tradition of backroom politics,” he said.
He wants the same process for filling the top leadership positions, saying a “coalition candidate” might be chosen as majority leader. But that could be trickier. The Senate rules, as they exist now, don’t provide for a majority leader elected on the Senate floor. But the state constitution does give the Legislature authority to choose its leaders as it sees fit, Secretary of the Senate Tom Hoemann said.
Whatever happens, party caucuses could continue to elect their own leaders.
The power-sharing proposal is a recipe for gridlock, said Seattle Sen. Ed Murray, who is asking Democrats to elect him as their leader in their caucus meeting Tuesday.
“The Senate has to be able to function,” said Murray, who was in the House during a paralyzing 49-49 tie from 1999 to 2001, featuring two speakers that each had veto power. “Somebody actually has to be in control. Parliamentary systems are built on somebody having a functional majority.”
“I think it would be more practical, if they don’t feel like they want to organize with the Democrats, that they organize with the Republicans,” Murray added, “because I really do feel like somebody should be in the majority.”
Similarly, Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent said such an arrangement would set the Senate up for failure in its negotiations with the House. “Some of the younger men, or some of the boys, just don’t understand that this is not a playground,” Keiser said.
But Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville argued that some bipartisan legislation did make it into law during the House tie, such as the Forests and Fish law aimed at protecting habitat and clean water.
“Doing less oftentimes is better,” he said. “I know we did what had to be done during the tie for three years.”
Tom said the arrangement would be new but not impractical, and would appeal to voters in a state that he argued is libertarian on both fiscal and social issues, taking some of what each party is offering. Washington voters approved same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization last week while reaffirming limits on the Legislature’s ability to tax.
“I think it can be done, and I think the people in Washington state – and I think the people pretty much everywhere — are hungry for a system where party dynamics doesn’t poison the pool,” said Tom, who switched parties in 2006 to become a Democrat. “I think what you’ll see in the Senate is a mixture of Republicans and Democrats running things, much more on an issue basis than from the dictates of a political party.”
As for committee assignments, Sheldon said they should be based on experience and qualifications, not on political considerations like who has raised money for a party’s campaigning. Sheldon’s maverick status cost him a seat on the Senate’s energy committee in 2011, he says. And even though he is one of the Legislature’s longest-serving members, he doesn’t chair any committees.
If Benton loses to Rep. Tim Probst, the Senate would likely remain in Democratic control. But it might look much like it did in 2011, when moderate Democrats forced the two parties to work together on a budget.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, one of the centrist, pro-business Democrats who stayed with his party when Kastama, Tom and Sheldon crossed over last session, said the broader moderate group remains “very strong” following the election. Although the group, dubbed the “Roadkill Caucus” for its middle-of-the-road status, lost Kastama and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, Hobbs said the newly elected Mark Mullet will be a moderate in that mold.
“Whatever happens, I see (the Senate) kind of working as we did the last two years in a bipartisan way,” Hobbs said.
For Tom and Sheldon, everything hangs on the race in Clark County.
“If Benton loses and it’s 27-22, Tom and I will be relegated to back bench for at least a year until Kilmer’s seat comes up,” Sheldon said.
Gig Harbor Sen. Derek Kilmer was elected to Congress last week and a fellow Democrat will be appointed to fill his seat until an election next November.
Either way, Sheldon said: “I think it’s going to be some fantastic intrigue here the next few weeks.”
UPDATED at 9:27 p.m. to add what the state constitution and rules say about the leadership positions.