Senate Republicans joined by maverick Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon announced a new majority coalition today to run the Senate in January, calling their plan a bipartisan effort to share power in a cooperative way the public is demanding. Tom will serve as majority leader of the new Majority Coalition Caucus, while Sheldon will take over as president pro tem, presiding in the absence of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.
The news came as perhaps a small surprise to Democrats, who had offered to share power under leadership of a 26-Democrat majority but knew an announcement was coming. Democrats’ leader Ed Murray called it a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach and it was unclear if the 24 remaining Democrats would agree to provide chairmen for the six committees that the new coalition offered.
Tom and Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said they agree with Gov.-elect Jay inslee, a Democrat, that new tax revenue is not needed to answer a Supreme Court ruling on the funding of schools. But the Washington Education Association quickly denounced the Senate power shift, calling it “misguided” and harmful to K-12 schools in a news release.
Sen. David Frockt of Seattle held a short news conference in the Senate wings to say that the Democratic caucus needed to meet and discuss its options. And Murray indicated in a formal statement he hoped Republicans would negotiate further before the Jan. 14 start of the next 105-day legislative session.
“This is a great day for Washington state. What we’re here today … about is making sure we have a Senate that can work together,” Sen. Tom said in his opening remarks, calling the setup “unprecedented.’’ “The public out there is hungry for us to come together, to work together in a collaborative manner. That is exactly what this coalition is trying to accomplish. We want a cooperative relationship and making sure we work across party lines.’’
Tom promised the group would be “governing from the middle, governing from the center” politically and suggested that more Democrats might join the fold. And Sheldon said the Legislature would offer a level of cooperation voters want but do not see in Washington, D.C.
Liberal advocacy group Fuse claimed it will lead to gridlock in the Legislature.
Under the plan announced at the Capitol by Tom, Schoesler, Sheldon and a half-dozen other lawmakers, Republicans are going to chair the key financial, education, healthcare and labor policy committees – led by Sen. Andy Hill as new chair of Ways and Means. Sen. Steve Litzow will serve as chair of Early Learning and K-12 Education.
Democrats would get Natural Resources and Parks, Agriculture and Water, Trade and Economic Development, Financial Institutions, Higher Education, and Environment and Marine Waters.
Tom said he will attend meetings of the Senate Majority Caucus but not the Democrats’ new minority caucus.
Schoesler that he is remaining as leader of the GOP members, or as Republican leader.
“I’m still the leader of 23 Republicans, and the titles and trappings of office aren’t that important to me,” Schoesler said.
Democrats had emerged from the election with a 26-23 majority and then offered to provide power sharing with Republicans – and the Democrats’ offer to have just a one-vote majority on most committees was similar to the Republican offer.
Frockt said there is no sense of betrayal knowing the coalition had more votes, which is markedly different from March when a similar coalition of Republicans and three Democrats including Tom and Sheldon seized control of the budget process.
“This is political,” Frockt said in his press conference in the Senate wings. “25 votes – that is what it takes. I really don’t feel betrayed.’’
Frockt did question the naming of Sen. Randi Becker, an Eatonville Republican and skeptic of federal health reform, as chair of the health-care committee.
UPDATE: House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, put out a short statement about the new Senate majority:
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“We don’t really know how the events in the Senate will eventually unfold, but regardless of who is in charge of what, our goals remain the same: move forward on fully-funding education, creating jobs, increasing access to higher education, and protecting the health and safety of Washington’s residents. We have always worked collaboratively with members from both chambers and from both sides of the aisle.
“Today’s events certainly have the potential to make reaching consensus even more difficult in an already-difficult year. But we can’t allow this Washington to devolve into the bitter drama and endless gridlock we too often see in the other Washington. Let’s keep working together for bipartisan solutions that reflect the values of the state we all love.”