Budget standoff likely means special session

OLYMPIA — House Democratic leaders on Monday continued to stonewall Republican efforts to negotiate a budget deal, all but ensuring a special session later this year.

Lawmakers are scheduled to end their 60-day session Thursday. With no substantive talks Monday on a compromise spending plan passable in both chambers, it’s become logistically improbable, if not impossible, to wrap up everything on time.

“There’s no way we get done by Thursday,” said Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The problem Monday was the same as it had been since early Saturday: House Democrats don’t want to sit down with the Senate Republicans responsible for writing the spending plan that passed the Senate on a 25-24 vote.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, sent a letter to House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, to get negotiations rolling. He points out the House and the Senate have each passed a budget and asked that their respective budget writers be able to start work on a compromise.

“We need to reconcile those differences,” said Zarelli, the architect of the Republican-crafted budget. “With all due respect to the majority here, the fact of the matter is we need to start negotiating with the House, not among ourselves, or we will be here forever.”

Democrats in the House and Senate seemed reluctant to follow along.

“We’re not going to negotiate with an army of senators,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

Democrats in both chambers did spend part of the weekend trying to iron out their budget differences. Where they find common ground will become fodder for conversations with Republicans in the Senate.

“I’m working on making them offers that would get us out in the regular session. We’ll send some ideas to them showing some movement in their direction, but they also have to show some movement in our direction,” said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of Ways and Means Committee.

“If they’re just going to shove their ideas down our throat as they did on Friday night, then that’s not compromise,” he said. “This place does not work without compromise.”

If not, Murray hopes what Democrats come up with may be enough to convince one of two Democrats who jumped to the Republican ship — Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, or Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup — to jump back. They don’t expect a third Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, to change his vote.

Meanwhile Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, signaled her willingness to get more deeply involved when she called Hewitt for a rundown of the critical concerns of his caucus.

It was the first time they’d spoken since Friday, when Gregoire blasted Republicans for the manner in which they pushed through their budget.

Hewitt considered it a hopeful sign that serious budget conversations will start to pick up.

“We’ve been telling you we want to do this in a bipartisan fashion and that’s what we’re still trying to do,” he said.

Even so, there’s too little time to get it done before the clock expires on the regular session. No one in either party wanted to predict when they should return or how long it will take when they do.

Leaders in both parties also acknowledged the Legislature could go home and not return until January 2013. They fulfilled their constitutional requirement to pass a two-year budget in 2011 and are not required to revise it, even in the face of a deficit now predicted at $500 million.

If they did leave the job undone, Gregoire would be forced to make across-the-board cuts in spending to make ends meet.

“That is one scenario. It wouldn’t be my optimal choice,” Sullivan said.

Ditto for Republicans.

“I think that would be irresponsible by us,” Zarelli said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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