OLYMPIA – Republican lawmakers may have a minority in the state Senate, but they also have a chance to expand their influence with the help of two moderate Democrats.
Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom, of Bellevue, and Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, have both signaled in recent days they aren’t going to endorse their party’s leadership to control the chamber.
That could lead to some sort of power-sharing agreement, a different Senate majority leader, and a situation in which a mix of both Democrats and Republicans hold committee chairs.
Tom said the public wants to see government operate without party labels.
“We need to govern more out of the middle,” Tom said.
The move would escalate an effort last year in which Tom and Sheldon worked with Republicans on the budget, helping drive some major changes on pensions and balanced budgets.
Both parties are still forming their leadership and committee teams after this month’s election, and the Legislature returns to work in early January.
The state Senate now serves as a firewall for Republican policy. They have little power in the House and lost a chance this year to take the governor’s office.
The party now holds just one statewide seat: a secretary of state position that has a minimal role outside of managing elections.
Much of the GOP strength in the Senate could also fall apart if a recount alters the outcome of a legislative race.
The Clark County seat held by Republican Sen. Don Benton is headed to a recount as Benton now holds a lead of roughly 100 votes over Democratic Rep. Tim Probst.
A win by Benton would give Democrats a 26-23 advantage, meaning defections by Tom and Sheldon can give power to a GOP-led coalition. A win by Probst would give Democrats a more solid leadership advantage.
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, who was recently chosen by fellow Democrats to lead the caucus, said Tom and others are essentially looking to toss Senate precedent and tradition, creating what he deemed a poisonous atmosphere in the chamber.
He believed it would be more productive for one party or the other to be in full control of the chamber.
Murray sent off a letter this week to Senate Republicans, asking for a meeting between the leadership teams after the two parties had completed those internal votes.
“Our goal is to recognize the fluid nature of the Senate at present and to govern accordingly,” Murray wrote in the letter, which he signed with the title of Senate majority leader.
Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, who has been serving as the Republican floor leader, said it’s still not clear how the proposal of a coalition leadership would work.
But he said there was support from Republicans for moving policy based on a philosophical majority instead of a political one – particularly on issues like education, government reform and fiscal responsibility.
“I’m optimistic that we can do good things and show people a path that’s different from the other Washington,” Schoesler said.