State Republicans prepping for 2015

OLYMPIA — When Republican state senators gather Wednesday for the first time since securing a majority, they likely will begin crafting a strategy on education and transportation for the 2015 legislative session.

But they also are certain to discuss what to call their caucus, who will lead it and whether it will continue to share power with Democrats on committees.

Those internal matters aren’t scheduled to be acted on until next month. But they could get decided when Republicans meet privately in Chehalis on Wednesday and in Olympia on Thursday following an election in which the GOP gained a 25th member and outright control of the chamber.

“What goes on in caucus stays in caucus,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said combatively when asked what topics he expected to be addressed.

“We’re going to have a long discussion on a whole host of things the caucus will be looking at for a preferred future for all of us,” he said.

For two years, an alliance of 24 Republicans and two Democrats ran the chamber under the banner of the Majority Coalition Caucus.

The Nov. 4 election of Republican Mark Miloscia gave the GOP enough votes to go it alone next session, although there are members who value crossover Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. The other coalition Democrat, Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, is retiring.

That raises the question of whether to continue operating as the Majority Coalition Caucus or to simply be the Republican Caucus with a Democrat.

“I don’t know,” Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said Monday. “I think either would work well. I think it’s a choice the caucus needs to discuss.”

Tom served as majority leader, and his departure creates an opening atop the chamber’s pyramid of power. If GOP senators keep the coalition brand, it could mean having a majority leader and a Republican leader, though both would likely be Republicans. In the House, Democrats have a speaker and a majority leader, for example.

As of Tuesday, Schoesler and Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, were said to be competing for the majority leader spot. Several Republican senators contacted this week, including Bailey, declined to confirm or comment on the leadership contest.

Republicans also must decide if Democrats retain power on some committees.

Conservative Democratic Sen. Brian Hatfield of Raymond is chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee.

Democrats also serve as co-chairs on committees dealing with transportation and the financial, housing and insurance industries. Under the arrangement, each co-chair has the ability to prevent hearings on bills and block votes on proposed legislation.

That could be critically important for transportation. Lawmakers in both chambers and the governor are pressing for passage of a multibillion-dollar improvement package this year.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the GOP co-chair of the Transportation Committee, is said to want to end the power-sharing because his efforts to push a package last session were stymied by his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way.

King could not be reached for comment.

Bailey insisted it’s a topic they’ll discuss, though she sounded like she’s made up her mind.

“We have a clear majority,” she said. “When given the opportunity by the people to be the leaders, you need to lead.”

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, deputy leader of the Democratic Caucus, said he would be “surprised” if there are any co-chairs next session.

“We’re waiting for Republicans to tell us what the committee structure will be,” he said.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, would be directly affected by the decision. He is now the co-chair on the Financial Institutions, Housing &Insurance Committee and in line to assume the same role on the Transportation Committee when Eide retires next month.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” Hobbs said Tuesday. “I haven’t heard anything officially from Republicans. I would be surprised if they keep the co-chairs. That’s their internal caucus politics.”

If he’s not one of the two chairmen, he anticipates being the ranking Democrat on the panel, a role he said would still ensure him a voice in negotiating any transportation proposal developed in the Senate.

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

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