OLYMPIA — State lawmakers launched a potentially turbulent session Monday with a dose of ceremony, a dash of acrimony and a touch of snowfall.
While the state House enjoyed a calm and uneventful opening day, the Senate endured a bit of brouhaha as an alliance of Republicans and two dissident Democrats laid claim to control of the chamber.
As expected, Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tom Sheldon, D-Potlatch, united with GOP members to forge the slimmest majority of 25 votes in the 49-person chamber.
In its first test, they blocked an attempt by Democrats to jointly run every committee with Republicans then passed their own version putting GOP senators at the helm of the key panels, including budget, education and health care.
A spirited rhetorical dance preceded each vote.
“We are Washington state, we are not Washington, D.C. Let’s leave chaos to Congress,” said Tom, who became Senate majority leader in the process. “This is not about power. This is not about control. This is about listening to the people of Washington. They want us to work together.”
Republicans had offered Democrats a chance run several panels but Democrats declined.
“We acknowledge there is a majority. We acknowledge that somebody has to lead,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle. “We believe this structure presented us is not the best to move us forward.”
Half a dozen Democrats, some passionately, denounced the arrangement as a power grab, and not power-sharing, because it gave GOP control of panels dealing with the major challenges facing lawmakers this session — erasing a budget deficit and increasing aid to public schools.
“I think they’ve lost credibility,” Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said of the offer. “I think this is a sad day for the Senate.”
No Republicans engaged Democrats in the debate over control of committees spurring veteran Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, to note: “When you have the votes. you don’t talk and when you don’t have the votes. you talk.”
More seriously, he said, whether bipartisanship is a staple in the Senate this session depends on the actions of the Senate Majority Coalition.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, for whom Monday was her first day in the Senate, sounded optimistic.
“Time will tell. My hope is that we can go forward as a coalition in a bipartisan way,” she said. “It is my intent to go that way.”
The Republican-led majority is good news for Bailey and fellow freshman, Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe. Bailey is the new chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee while Pearson will be guiding the Natural Resources &Parks Committee.
Two Democratic senators did accept offers to serve as committee chairmen. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, will lead the Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee, and Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, will guide the Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee.
“I am not part of the Republican majority,” Hobbs said before the session. “It’s simply me taking a leadership position.”
Also, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, agreed to serve as co-chair of the transportation committee with Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.
It took senators nearly three hours to sort things out Monday. By the time they headed outside, snow was falling and House committees had begun their conversation on how to plug a projected $900 million hole in the next two-year budget.
The House budget committee, where a two-year spending plan will be crafted, took public testimony on proposals put forth by outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire. Also Monday, the House Finance Committee discussed Gregoire’s revenue-raising ideas.
Lawmakers this session must also deal with an order from the state Supreme Court to beef up funding for public schools. Democrats are angling to make a $1 billion down payment on what is estimated to be a $4 billion cost. But Republicans are focusing on reforms in the classroom before allotting extra dollars to school districts.
There will be pressure to modify state laws dealing with gun control and mental health services and require health insurers to cover abortion care.
Sheldon expressed confidence the coalition will keep its frail majority intact as it passes through roiling waters in the coming weeks.
“There will be some times where there will be some animosity and some rancorous debate (in the caucus) but I think it will hold together,” he said.
Monday marked the first time Democrats had been in the minority in the Senate since 2004. Visitors to the Senate chamber could immediately see the result of the change — senators had new seats and the two parties swapped sides within the chamber itself.
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, didn’t mind the revised seating arrangement but was peeved at the political situation.
“For the first time since I’ve been down here I did not want to walk into the legislative building. Voters spoke very clearly (in November) that they wanted Democratic leadership in the Senate, the House and the governor’s office,” she said shortly before the session started. “They aren’t getting it.”
She deemed the defection of Tom and Sheldon as acts of opportunism and looked forward to getting past the opening day calisthenics.
“We have to get through the games to get to policy,” she said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org