OLYMPIA – In a move variously described as an exciting opportunity for bipartisanship or a political coup, a pair of Democrats announced Monday they are joining forces with the Senate’s 23 Republicans and plan to run the chamber through a bipartisan coalition.
“We want this to be a cooperative arrangement, governing from the middle,” said state Sen. Rodney Tom, of Bellevue, one of two Democrats who joined Republicans.
Some remaining Democrats, however, said they were skeptical of the plan, and their members may refuse to appoint chairs or co-chairs. State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, disputed the description of the plan as a bipartisan coalition: “A minority plus two is not really a coalition.”
The proposal is made possible by the chamber’s close partisan divide: 26 Democrats to 23 Republicans. With Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, of Potlach, joining a united bloc of Republicans, the coalition has the needed 25-vote majority.
Under the plan, Tom would be Senate majority leader rather than Seattle Sen. Ed Murray, the leader Democrats picked in their caucus meeting last month. Ritzville Sen. Mark Schoesler would be the Senate Republican leader.
“We want to do something different than the other Washington,” Schoesler said, referring to what he called gridlock in the nation’s capital. “Committee chairs will represent all of Washington … who will put politics aside.”
Murray said in a prepared statement that Democrats are open to discussing a “mutually agreed-on way” for the two parties to work together: “We don’t believe the Republicans’ take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the best way forward.”
If the proposal holds through Jan. 14, the day when the Legislature convenes and members cast procedural votes on leadership, it would be unprecedented in the history of the Washington Senate, and unusual in the United States.
“Across American legislatures today, there’s no model like this,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University.
When a party gains control through a few defections, it generally takes all the leadership positions and chairmanships, Donovan said. What the coalition is proposing more resembles a European parliament with multiple parties forming a working coalition.
The plan could set up a system for bipartisanship and “getting things done,” said Travis Ridout, professor of government and public policy at Washington State University. “It could go the other way as well. I can see it going either way.”
State GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur described himself as “beyond excited” at the proposal.
“The courage of these two Democrats means that we can expect a no-new-taxes budget and education reform with Republicans now chairing both the Ways and Means and K-12 committees,” Wilbur said in a news release.
His Democratic counterpart, Dwight Pelz, was less thrilled, charging that Tom and Sheldon “turned their backs” on their own party.
“Sen. Tom has instigated this unprecedented coup and joined with Republicans to install himself as Majority Leader out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions,” Pelz said in a prepared statement that noted the state party gave Tom $25,000 for his 2010 campaign.
Under the plan, Republicans would lead six committees, Democrats would lead six, and three would have a co-chair from each party. Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, described it as “a power-share rather than a power-grab.”
Yet Republicans would control what are arguably the most powerful committees: Ways and Means, which writes the budget, and Early Learning/K-12 Education, which will wrestle with ways to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to improve public schools.
Coalition members would oppose any increase in taxes, even to find the more than $1 billion that could be needed to satisfy the court mandate on schools. Tom said Governor-elect Jay Inslee, a Democrat, campaigned on finding money for education without raising taxes.
An Inslee spokeswoman said the incoming governor is less concerned about who is in charge of the chamber and the committees and more concerned about solving the state’s problems.
“Voters expect us to work together to create jobs, balance our budget and improve our schools, and I expect that both Republican and Democratic leaders will work together to get these things done in the 2013 session,” Inslee said in a prepared statement.
Democratic members other than Sheldon and Tom will have to meet and discuss the coalition’s proposal, Frockt said. The initial reaction was “not great enthusiasm,” and Democrats could refuse to appoint chairs or co-chairs to the committees being offered, Frockt said.
But the coalition was not necessarily a recipe for gridlock, he said: “We’re going to have to figure out a way to govern.”