Bipartisan Coalition Takes Washington Senate From Democrats

By: - December 11, 2012 12:00 am

Voters in Washington State last month elected a state Senate with 26 Democrats and 23 Republicans. But starting next month, those Republicans will serve in the chamber’s majority after a coup Monday (December 10) that will bring a bipartisan coalition to power.

Two centrist Democratic senators, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, announced they had banded together with the Republicans to form the new “Majority Coalition Caucus.” The two Democrats will serve in the chamber’s top positions. Tom, a former Republican who became a Democrat in 2006, will lead the Senate as majority leader. Sheldon will serve as president pro tempore.

Under the plan, Republicans and Democrats will split committee chairmanships, but, as Publicola reported, Republicans will lead many of the committees that are considered most important, including K-12 Education and the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

The coalition presented the arrangement as a way for Republicans and Democrats to join together to solve the state’s problems. “We are Washington State, not Washington, D.C.,” the group wrote in a statement laying out its principles. “We commit ourselves to establishing a style of lawmaking that promotes policy over politics, an approach seen all too rarely in politics today.”

Democrats saw the move as a power grab and refused to accept that power will be divided as the coalition outlined. The chamber won’t officially pick its leadership until January. “We don’t believe the Republicans’ take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the right way forward,” Democratic State Senator Ed Murray said in a statement, which referred to Murray as majority leader—the Democratic caucus picked him as their leader last month. “We remain hopeful that Republicans will be open to negotiations to ensure the full functioning of the Senate.”

The coalition takeover marked the second time in as many weeks that Republicans had claimed a share of power in a legislative chamber where they are in the numerical minority. Democrats likely won 32 or 33 seats in the 63-member New York Senate — recounts are pending — but Republicans agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with a handful of breakaway Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Under the deal, the New York Senate presidency will rotate every two weeks between Senator Dean Skelos, the Republicans’ leader, and Senator Jeffrey Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference.

In Washington, the new Senate leadership is likely to quickly face difficult choices together with Governor-elect Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and the Democratic-controlled Washington House. Lawmakers must find a way to conform to a state Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to boost education spending while at the same time closing a million budget shortfall over the next two years.

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.