In a letter sent Monday to Sen. Rodney Tom, Murray wrote that in order to redefine a majority caucus, the Senate's 23 Republicans and the two Democrats joining them, including Tom, must vote to change the permanent rules of the Senate and its governance structure when the legislative session begins next month. Murray wrote that Lt. Gov. Brad Owen has said he will continue to recognize the Democratic caucus as the majority caucus of the Senate until that happens.
"Under the current and past Senate rules, and longstanding past interpretations of those rules, the majority caucus is defined as the party containing the most elected members, which currently remains the Democratic caucus," Murray wrote. "As such, the majority leader is elected by the Democratic Caucus under the provisions of our own caucus rules."
Last month, Senate Democrats elected Murray as their majority leader. But last week, Tom, a Democrat from Medina, and fellow Democrat, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, announced they would work with Republicans under a newly formed caucus called the "majority coalition" caucus and that Tom would be the new majority leader.
Democrats have a small majority in the Senate, controlling 26 of 49 seats. With the moves by Tom and Sheldon, Republicans effectively hold a 25-24 advantage.
Under the proposed plan by the caucus to be led by Tom, Republicans will chair six committees, including the panel that controls the state budget, while Democrats will control another six committees. The parties will split control of three other panels, though Sheldon is on two of those committees.
Murray's letter was in response to a letter Tom sent him on Friday asking him to appoint senators to the committees the majority coalition caucus offered Democrats to lead. Tom also said he wanted the Facilities and Operations Committee to be reorganized soon. That committee, which oversees personnel issues, would need to be reorganized, Tom said, to determine office locations and other issues.
However, it also is the committee that imposed sanctions on Republican Sen. Pam Roach, who was kicked out of her caucus two years ago because of accusations of mistreating staff. She was allowed back in earlier this year when Republicans built a similar coalition to take over the budget process, but she is still currently barred from interacting with most Senate staff.
Tom has said that Roach, who has been named chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee under the new plan, would have those sanctions against her lifted, even though they were recently reaffirmed under a legal settlement announced in September.
In a written response to Murray on Monday, Tom wrote the new coalition would take steps on the first day of session to establish themselves as the majority caucus.
"We believe it would be best for the institution and by extension, the people of Washington, if the current majority would accommodate our incoming majority in the various ways that will enable the Senate to be fully functioning on January 14," Tom wrote. "The alternative would be to risk the very chaos you have publicly warned might accompany a change in the Senate majority. Surely, no one wants that."
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