Republicans in state Senate stage budget coup

OLYMPIA — High drama gripped the state Senate on Friday when minority Republicans and three conservative Democrats seized control of the chamber to muscle through a budget plan.

But their political triumph may force lawmakers into a special session.

“They have put getting out on time at total risk. They have set us back,” a frustrated Gov. Chris Gregoire said Friday night. “Chances of success are quite limited. This is not how we do business in the state of Washington.”

When asked what she would do if lawmakers don’t finish by March 8, the last scheduled day of the session, she said: “I haven’t a clue.”

Republicans, and their Democratic allies, brushed aside allegations they will be to blame if the Legislature is forced into overtime. They said they acted only when it became clear their approach to rebalance the budget would be the only one to garner the needed 25 votes for passage.

“This is just one step in the process,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

The drama played out in the chamber where Democrats outnumber Republicans 27-22. But a number of moderates are in their ranks.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., all 22 Republicans plus three conservative Democrats — Sens. Tim Sheldon of Potlach, Rodney Tom of Medina and Jim Kastama of Puyallup — forged the majority needed to immediately pull their version of an operating budget to the floor for a vote.

Democrats, angered by the maneuver in the works for days, countered with a fusillade of parliamentary procedures to drag out the process, including the nuclear option of requiring every line in the 233-page bill be read aloud in the chamber.

The chamber seemed to fill with nervous tension as House Republicans and staff packed the wings to watch as their party enjoyed a rare moment of power on the floor. On the Democrats’ side, anxious members and staff strategized on how best to respond.

Thirty-four pages into the reading, Democrat and Republican leaders struck a deal to halt the recitation, take a recess and then begin debating the Republican budget bill and a pile of amendments from the outmaneuvered Democrats.

A final vote was expected late Friday on the GOP blueprint for solving a $1.1 billion budget problem. The plan makes $773 million in spending cuts and sets aside $502 million in reserves.

“It gets us a budget that is sustainable and will be balanced in the future,” said Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee and architect of the GOP proposal.

It does not postpone a $330 million payment to public schools as does the budget put forth by earlier this week by Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Republicans contend that is an accounting gimmick, which creates a shortfall in the next budget cycle.

“Their commitment for getting out on time was to delay the payment,” Zarelli said. “It sets us up for a deficit. I’m tired of it.”

Kastama said it is “not a perfect budget. I think it’s an honest budget,” he said. “Putting the budget forward I think accelerates the process. Let the negotiations begin.”

Murray said Friday’s action will have the opposite effect.

“We’re going into special session,” he said. “Why would we help them pass a budget that we believe basically violates our values.”

Friday’s events come a year after Murray and Zarelli teamed up to write a bipartisan budget. It also occurred as several reform bills pushed by moderate Democrats, including Kastama and Tom, appeared to be moving forward.

Now, some of those efforts are in jeopardy.

“I’m not sure what it does. It sets up a new dynamic for the final week,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, one of the moderates in the Roadkill Caucus. “I never imagined moderate Democrats would assert their voices in this manner.”

“I think we had a number of significant reforms passed off the floor,” said Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett. “They obviously made a decision that that’s not good enough.”

Meanwhile, in the House, where Democrats hold a 56-42 majority, leaders said they were stunned by the turn of the events and they don’t intend to consider the spending plan when it comes over from the Senate.

“This made it very difficult to get our work done on time,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

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

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