Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray says he is going to ask Lt. Gov. Brad Owen for help in sorting out an orderly transition of power in the chamber – as his caucus prepares to hand over reins to a new alliance of 23 Republicans and two Democrats on Jan. 14.
Murray also said late Thursday in a telephone interview that he is willing to give up claims to leadership offices in the state Capitol, leaving his caucus’ space to Sen. Rodney Tom, the dissident Democrat who along with maverick Sen. Tim Sheldon is forming the new majority caucus with the Republican minority.
Murray’s announcements were the latest turns in a strange, evolving situation in the Senate where Democrats have a 26 seats, Republicans led by Sen. Mark Schoesler have 23, and a new coalition led by Tom and Schoesler is trying to seize power.
Murray’s offer to bring in Owen as peacemaker might offer an end to the unfolding soap opera over who is in charge at the Senate – and how the transfer of power will take place before lawmakers show up mid-January for a 105-day session widely expected to be difficult just because of the school funding issue.
In a sign the parties are high-centered, Tom said earlier in the day that it was the Democrats who were failing to meet and talk over a transition plan, while Murray said it was Tom’s new team that was balking.
But Tom later welcomed news of Murray’s decision to seek out Owen, a Democrat known for his even-handedness during Senate floor sessions, as a broker.
“I think that’s what we’ve been asking for. I’m happy to see there is some movement there and we can get some things worked out. So on the 14th we can get on with the people’s business,’’ Tom said.
Until Murray announced his plans in an interview with The Olympian and News Tribune, the two parties were on a collision path on the Senate floor on the opening day of session.
That is because under Senate rules, the caucus with the most members must appoint the majority leader, which at this time is Murray – whom Democrats appointed to that role earlier this month by virtue of holding 26 of the Senate’s 49 seats. Even Sheldon voted for that move, Murray says.
Any change in that power structure msut be done by a rule change on the first day of session, according to Murray and Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Karen Fraser of Thurston County. Both Murray and Fraser say the rule has been in effect for 100 years and should not be changed – as Tom appeared to be doing by letter and a press conference – by fiat.
Tom said he agrees that the Senate’s rules do say the party with the most members technically gets to select the majority leader, and that the rule cannot be changed until session begins. But he had signaled in letters to Murray he wanted to name Democrats to chair committees and make other organizational moves right away.
Whoever was at fault, both the outgoing majority and incoming majority have been suffering a series of communication breakdowns – including whether Tom’s new coalition was going to demand office space in the Capitol for his coalition’s leadership as well as space for Republican Leader Schoesler’s GOP caucus leaders.
Murray says he was told by Schoesler they needed space for both – meaning there could be three caucuses operating in the Senate.
But Schoesler says there will only be two caucuses.
“(T)here is a majority caucus and there is a minority caucus. The Senate Republicans all belong to the majority caucus,” Schoesler explained. He added that there is no need for additional Republican caucus offices other than what a majority caucus would require.
Sounding exasperated that his caucus was getting blamed for blocking the reassignment of offices, Murray said he did not want to fight over offices.
“I personally will take the smallest office I can find in the (nearby) Cherberg Building. They can have all the leadership offices they need in the Capitol building. That seems to be where their hunger is…I want to end the office wars by saying the other leadership team can have my offices,” Murray said.
In a second move, Murray said he will unilaterally take a step toward breaking the logjam: “I will appoint several members of our leadership team and ask them to do the same and ask them to sit down with Brad Owen, the presiding officer, to work out a transition.’’
Tom said he met with Owen the other day and believes the lieutenant governor “is there to help. And both sides look upon Brad as a very fair arbiter. All of us agree we want to look out for the best elements of the institution.’’
Schoesler said he just wants “”an orderly transition and I’d prefer it’s sooner rather than later.’’ Although it is tradition for an outgoing majority to hand the reins over to the new majority, Schoesler said “Sen. Murray has not to my knowledge told us … We have not been notified we have the ability to move into offices. We have not been given permission to take any offices.”
Perhaps that is about to change.