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Republicans seize control of state Senate with the help of Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon

Senate Republicans announced today they have formally reached a deal with Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon (of the 48th and 35th Districts, respectively) to run Washington’s Senate for the next two years, which means that Democrats will be in the minority for the first time since the 2006 session.

At a press conference in Olympia, Tom and Sheldon confirmed that they have signed an agreement to form a “Senate Majority Coalition Caucus” which will consist of the two of them plus the twenty-three Republican senators. The Republicans have all agreed to allow Tom to serve as their majority leader and Sheldon to serve as the Senate’s president pro tempore. (The president pro tempore presides when the Lieutenant Governor is not available to run the Senate).

Tom and Sheldon, conversely, are allowing Republicans to determine the Senate’s committee structure. The Republican caucus has already released a document on its website which lists the reorganized committees, their names, and chairs.

The following tables are from that document:

Committee Makeup Chair
Natural Resources and Parks 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans Democrats will appoint chair/Sen. Pearson ranking Republican
Agriculture and Water 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans Democrats will appoint chair/Sen. Honeyford ranking Republican
Trade and Economic Development 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans Democrats will appoint chair/7th District senator ranking Republican
Financial Institutions & Insurance 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans Democrats will appoint chair/Sen. Benton ranking Republican
Higher Education 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans Democrats will appoint chair/Sen. Bailey ranking Republican
Environment and Marine Waters 3 Democrats, 2 Republicans Democrats will appoint chair/Sen. Delvin ranking Republican
Committee Makeup Chair
Ways and Means 12 Republicans, 11 Democrats Sen. Hill [Democrats choose ranking member]
Commerce and Labor 4 Republicans, 3 Democrats Sen. Holmquist Newbry [Democrats choose ranking member]
Early Learning and K-12 Education 6 Republicans, 5 Democrats Sen. Litzow [Democrats choose ranking member]
Government Operations 4 Republicans, 3 Democrats Sen. Roach [Democrats choose ranking member]
Law and Justice 4 Republicans, 3 Democrats Sen. Padden [Democrats choose ranking member]
Health Care 5 Republicans, 4 Democrats Sen. Becker [Democrats choose ranking member]
Committee Makeup Chair
Human Services and Corrections 3 Republicans, 3 Democrats Sen. Carrell (co-chair)/Democrats will appoint a co-chair
Transportation 8 Republicans, 8 Democrats Sen. King (co-chair)/Democrats will appoint a co-chair
Energy and Telecommunications 3 Republicans, 3 Democrats Sen. Ericksen (co-chair)/Democrats will appoint a co-chair

Notice that the Republicans gave themselves control of the all-important Ways & Means Committee, as well as Government Operations, and an equal number of members on Transportation (which means they can block Democrats from moving any bills they don’t like through Transportation).

Republicans tried to dress up their announcement as “getting away from politics” being in the public interest. Right. Because politics shouldn’t be political.

“It’s supposed to be a power-share rather than a power-grab,” Linda Evans-Parlette told reporters gathered for the press conference Capitol Campus.

But a power-grab is exactly what this is. By joining forces with Tom and Sheldon, Senate Republicans have made themselves the majority party in the Senate. The voters did not elect a Republican majority to the Senate in 2012. The Republicans have, instead, engineered a majority by reclaiming Rodney Tom and adding longtime renegade Tim Sheldon to their ranks.

The Republicans are not dissolving in favor of a brand new caucus led by Rodney Tom. Rather, the Republican caucus is allowing Rodney Tom to be their leader, and allowing Tim Sheldon to stand behind the rostrum when Brad Owen is not around.

Tom and Sheldon have both said they don’t intend to leave the Democratic Party. But in joining the Republican Party, they have left the Democratic Party. They can hardly expect to be considered Democrats when they are caucusing with Republicans. Tom and Sheldon can say they’re Democrats, but that doesn’t make them Democrats. Actions speak louder than words.

Tom and Sheldon are trying to cast themselves as courageous bridge-builders and promoters of cooperation. In reality, they are opportunists.

And an opportunist is the worst kind of politician there is.

There is nothing virtuous about this coup (and it is a coup). It was plotted behind closed doors without public input or public hearings. Senate Democrats were not consulted about the committee structure or other details. House Democrats are not a party to the deal. And Governor-elect Inslee is not either. The Senate does not have the ability to pass budgets or make laws on its own.

I listened to Tom answer questions from reporters at today’s press conference and it was evident from his tone that he considers himself part of the Republican caucus now. Asked whether he would be caucusing with Republicans, he responded, “There’ll be a majority coalition caucus and a minority caucus… I will be caucusing with the majority.”

In other words, Tom will be caucusing with the Republicans… and hoping Democrats won’t be too upset with him. “We expect to work with them,” he told reporters. I noted – and you should too – that he referred to the Democratic caucus, now led by Ed Murray, as them. Which, of course, makes sense. Tom may not have consciously intended to use those words… he was not reading from a prepared statement. He was speaking off the top of his head. And it’s evident he doesn’t consider himself part of the Senate Democratic caucus anymore.

Neither does Washington State Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz, who issued this statement not long after the announcement was made:

In 2010, Senators Tom and Sheldon stood for reelection as Democrats. In the case of Senator Tom, he even accepted over $25,000 in contributions from the State Democratic Party. But today, Senators Tom and Sheldon turned their backs on the Democratic Party by siding with a radically right Republican caucus that earlier this year attempted to slash critically important funding for education and social services for the elderly and the vulnerable.

To imply that the current Democratic caucus is unwilling to work across party lines to move our state forward is absurd. Just two years ago, Democratic Senator Ed Murray and Republican Senator Joe Zarelli worked together to build a bipartisan budget – an unprecedented show of unity in Olympia.

The truth here is that Senator Tom has instigated this unprecedented coup and joined with Republicans to install himself as Majority Leader out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions, not out of what is in the best interests of his constituents or the public at large. What he announced today is a prescription for instability and division.

Ed Murray, meanwhile, reacted coldly to the Republicans’ announcement.

“We recognize that any majority in the Senate will be an unstable one, and we are committed to forming a mutually agreed-upon way for Republicans and Democrats to work together,” he said. “We don’t believe the Republicans’ take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the right way forward. We remain hopeful that Republicans will be open to negotiations to ensure the full functioning of the Senate.”

Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who represents the neighboring 36th District, issued her own response. She did not mince words.

“Forcing half the chamber to accept a take-it-or-leave-it plan is not the way you foster collaboration, trust or respect,” Kohl-Welles said.

“That’s a recipe for confrontation, not collaboration — and it bears little resemblance to the Democratic principles I believe my constituents in the 36th District and people across the state expect legislators to uphold.”

Tom and Sheldon suggested to reporters that other Democratic senators might join with them in abandoning the Democratic caucus in the coming days and weeks.

But no one else was masquerading as a Democrat at today’s press conference in the Legislative Building. Unfortunately for Tom and Sheldon, their former turncoat pal Jim Kastama (who helped Republicans rush a budget through the state Senate back in the spring) is on his way out of the Legislature.

Voters replaced Kastama with a real Republican – Bruce Dammeier.

The majority the Republicans have engineered is incredibly tenuous. To control the floor, they need every single member of their caucus to be in the Senate chamber and available to vote whenever the Senate is in session – along with de facto Republicans Sheldon and Tom. If just one Republican is missing, it means Republicans do not have the twenty-five votes required to pass legislation.

In the event of a tie, the Constitution allows the Lieutenant Governor to cast a vote. There may well be times during the upcoming session when there is a tie, and that will mean that Brad Owen will get a vote. Owen has historically worked well with Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, and once helped Brown out of a jam during the 2009 session. (The Senate deadlocked on SB 5433; Owen gave Brown the twenty-fifth vote she needed to get the bill passed). That could give Ed Murray and his caucus opportunities to temporarily take back power.

Incidentally, one of the Republican senators who signed the power-sharing agreement – Bob Morton – is actually planning to resign just after the new year. Morton’s successor will be a Republican because he is, and presumably that new senator will be duly sent to Olympia prior to the first day of session so that Republicans won’t be a vote short of twenty-five.

Jim Camden has the details on the process for filling the vacancy and who has expressed interest in being named as the next senator from the 7th District.

Democrats, meanwhile, have to choose a successor for Derek Kilmer, who is leaving the state Senate to join the U.S. House of Representatives in the Other Washington.

One Comment

  1. Posted December 11th, 2012 at 10:47 PM | Permalink

    Tom is turning into a man without a country. Washington has had several incidents of politicians switching parties, but this is the first time I’ve heard of one trying to sabotage the party that he is switching to.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] and fellow Democrat-in-Name-Only Tim Sheldon announced at a press conference yesterday that they’re going to caucus with Senate Republicans for the next two years, but remain in the Democratic Party. At least, that’s what they think. Neither man seems to [...]

  2. [...] announcing on Monday that he has decided to join with Tim Sheldon in engineering a new Republican ma… in the Washington State Senate, Medina’s Rodney Tom has been fielding phone calls and emails [...]