A bid by minority Democrats to seize control of the Washington state Senate ended in a fizzle late Tuesday afternoon. They got 23 votes in favor of a procedural motion, called the 9th Order, but needed 25 and the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus held strong in rejecting the move.
The move put Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom in a bind – because the procedural move was meant to spring loose two bills Tom supports but that are bottled up in committees by his own Republican chairs. One bill deals with requiring health insurers to cover abortion if they also cover maternity; the other allows college aid to undocumented youths brought to the U.S. by parents at a young age who have finished high school here and want to go to college.
Both bills now are in serious trouble ahead of Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline for voting on non-budget bills on the House and Senate floors.
In the end, Tom opted for preserving control of the Senate under his leadership and avoiding chaos rather than going with his conscience. He said going to the 9th Order – an obscure procedure in Senate rules that lets bills be brought directly to a floor vote – would open a door to sure chaos, and it could have run on for days as members of both parties moved to revive bills that had died in committee or were bottled up elsewhere in the legislative process.
“The problem with the 9th is once you go to the 9th is getting out of the 9th – unless people have an agreement to get in and get out like we did last year,” Tom told reporters, contrasting this year’s situation with the situation in March 2012. The latter was when three Democrats including Tom crossed over to join Republicans and seize control of the budget process.
Tom said that in 2012 he was forced to vote against bills he wanted to pass during the 9th Order move because of the agreements made between the budget coalition partners. That kind of agreement did not exist today.
“There is no way in a disorganized manner like this that you’re going to have that kind of agreement. So the whole floor becomes open. You can be in there for days,” Tom said.
He raised the specter of endless bills from members of his own caucus – specifically conservative Republican Sens. Don Benton of Vancouver and Pam Roach of Auburn – being unleashed on the floor. Among those he said could come up is a controversial bill requiring parental notification anytime a teenager sought an abortion; another is a bill requiring motorists to provide proof of legal residency before getting a driver license.
“But then I have to sit here and defeat 50 Roach bills and 40 Benton bills and everybody else that wants to bring their bills that didn’t get through Rules. There is no control of the floor,” Tom said. “And so every member, as soon as Pam starts on her list (says): ‘I’m going to go to my computer and look at my list,’ and that’s going to happen on every single member.”
But Democratic Leader Ed Murray of Seattle said he had expected more from Tom who leads a Majority Coalition Caucus that formed supposedly to bring a new approach to legislating that would not bottle up legitimate policy proposals. It promised to be bipartisan – and he said Tom had failed to provide an alternative route to getting the abortion and financial aid bills to the floor.
“I thought the whole idea behind this coalition is that there would be a new day in Olympia. Instead we have a far more rigid situation than we had before where somebody who wants to vote for a bill they can’t vote for a bill,” Murray told reporters.
But truth be told, Murray was unable even to get all of his members to go along with the 9th Order move. Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove, a conservative from Hoquiam, opposes the Reproductive Parity Act (the insurance bill) and voted with the Republican side against going to the 9th Order. Hargrove’s actions were complicated in that he also had pledged to vote for ailing Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood during Carrell’s absences for treatment of a pre-leukemia condition.
Murray did not criticize Hargrove and said he has been consistent during his long service in the Senate in voting against socially liberal legislation such as the abortion bill. But he said Hargrove supported the Dream Act, which deals with college aid for undocumented immigrants and would vote for it on the floor.
Murray also predicted the Dream Act could pass with 30 votes in the Senate while the abortion bill could get a majority of perhaps 26 or 27 votes.
Murray also pointed out that Tom and Republican Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island were going back on their own support for the abortion bill. Both men had stood on the Capitol steps during a reproductive rights rally and said they supported the Reproductive Parity Act, and both signed a letter with 23 other lawmakers saying they would vote for it. It is a point that reproductive rights groups have been making as they also have tried to put pressure on Tom and Litzow.
“Remember they are the ones who said they wanted to form a new Senate and operate it under a philosophical majority. Instead we’re not operating under a philosophical majority,” Murray said.
Asked about Murray’s statement, Tom said he disagreed then tried to change the subject. He said that operating the Senate in that way would be fine if House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, would let bills up for a vote that have majority support in the lower chamber. House Democrats typically halt bills short of the floor unless a majority in their caucus supports a measure.
“If Frank Chopp wants to make that same agreement, you know there’s tons of bills on workers comp and a whole host of education reforms that we can get more – much more than – 50-plus members,” Tom said. “Guess what – those things never see the light of day. So if people want to talk about that this place should be run as soon as you get to 50 (in the House) or 25 in the Senate, let’s have that conversation. But that conversation hasn’t happened in the House for 10 years.”
Murray said his caucus may make another move to go to the 9th Order before the 5 p.m. Wednesday cutoff. After that bills not deemed necessary to implement the state budget are considered dead, and session’s scheduled adjournment date of April 28 is drawing near.