OLYMPIA – The most ephemeral thing in politics might be big majorities. This should be particularly obvious to Democrats as they look to next year’s Legislature.
Six years ago, Democrats approached the session with 31 of 49 seats in the Senate and 62 of 98 seats in the House. Those were nearly veto-proof majorities if they’d found the need to override any vetoes from Gov. Chris Gregoire, but considering she was a fellow Democrat, that point was mostly moot.
Slowly the Republicans chipped away at those margins, a few seats at a time. . .
. . . They’ll have a one-seat majority in the Senate – or two seats if you count nominal Democrat Tim Sheldon who got significant financial support from GOP sources to beat fellow Democrat Irene Bowling and could caucus with Republicans.
In the House, the Democrats are up by just four seats.
Such margins usually require iron discipline by leaders to keep legislation moving through the pipeline. Allowing detours for proposals that satisfy the most liberal or conservative segments of a caucus, but have little hope of passing the full chamber, is only practical in times of large margins.
For example, when Democrats had large majorities there were almost annual hearings on a state income tax bill. Leaders knew those bills had no chance of becoming law, but it satisfied some of the more liberal members, and some like-minded constituencies, to provide an airing of the progressive Holy Grail before letting it slip into parliamentary oblivion.
When margins are tight, however, leaders often eschew hero bills that can split their members and provide votes for the other party. House leaders have to be cognizant of the defection of moderate Democrats in the Senate, the self-dubbed “Road Kill Caucus” for its perceived middle-roadness, a few years back. They gave Republicans in that chamber a working majority on budget matters even when the GOP had a five-seat deficit on paper. Senate Democrats didn’t know it then but those defections were a harbinger of their current minority status.
Senate Republicans showed they could enforce strong discipline in the years when they needed all hands on deck to make the coalition caucus work. House Speaker Frank Chopp will need to recall the tactics that worked when he spent three years as “co-speaker” because the chamber was tied at 49-all.