OLYMPIA, Wash. - Three months ago, 23 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats seized control of the Washington state Senate. At the time, Majority Leader Rodney Tom, one of the Democrats, pledged a new spirit of bipartisanship.
“The public out there is hungry for us to come together, to work together in a collaborative manner and that’s exactly what this coalition is trying to accomplish,” he said.
But as the halfway point of the legislative session approaches, the Washington state Senate has become a hotbed of partisan recriminations.
It was a bit of parliamentary jiu-jitsu – where the weaker opponent maneuvers for the upper hand. As a key legislative deadline approached recently, minority Democrats in three different Washington Senate committees tried to force votes on dying pieces of legislation.
Democratic Senators Karen Keiser, Kevin Ranker and Jeanne Kohl-Welles -- all former chairs deposed by new majority -- were trying to revive proposals dealing with diabetes prevention, flame retardants in furniture, and gun violence.
In response, three Republican chairs gaveled their committees to a close. Two of the three ultimately allowed votes on the Democrats’ proposals. Even so they all failed to pass out of committee.
Republican Senator Doug Ericksen suggests this was all just political theater.
“This was a pre-planned and orchestrated attempt by the Democrats to do these parliamentary procedures in a number of committees.”
Democrats respond they’re well within their rights to use parliamentary tactics as leverage.
“If the Majority Coalition doesn’t want to support that bill, that’s their prerogative," says Senator Ranker, the Democrat who tried to force the vote on the flame retardant measure. "But not allowing the debate, but not allowing the discussion I think is unfortunate.”
Republicans note Ranker turned down an invitation to chair a committee under the new majority coalition. He says he didn’t want to be a part of an “extreme” agenda. As for the flame retardant measure, Ericksen – who chairs the Energy Committee – says he’ll hear it if it comes over from the House.
But many Democrats remain frustrated. Senator Adam Kline watched one of his top priority bills die: a measure that would have made it a crime to leave a loaded gun out where a kid could get it. It was in response to several tragedies involving kids and guns last year.
“They don’t want to hear it and they vote it down without even thinking about it," Kline says. "They didn’t even want to schedule it. They just put their blinders on. This is not bipartisanship.”
But you get a very different story from Senator Padden, the Republican chair of the Law and Justice Committee. He believes Washington law already covers the crime of allowing a kid to get hold of a loaded gun. About Kline’s bill he says, “I think it was a solution in search of a problem that we don’t have at this point.”
For their part, members of the Majority Coalition are adamant they’re honoring the pledge to work in a bipartisan fashion. They have even got stats at the ready. Those numbers show so far 30 percent of the bills that have passed off the Senate floor were sponsored by the minority.
“We are moving their bills and our goal is to continue to move their bills,” says Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler.
Watching from across the rotunda, House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt thinks Senate Democrats are just having a hard time adjusting to life in the minority – a role he’s all too familiar with.
“Now you don’t you get your way and you’re going to pout on Facebook or run parliamentary procedures in committees," DeBolt says. "So they just got some learning to do. It’s growing pains I’m sure.”
The real test of cooperation in the Washington Senate is no doubt yet to come. There are two controversial measures that have emerged as top priorities of Democrats: a requirement that health insurance carriers cover abortion and universal background checks for gun sales. If the Senate majority blocks them, one option for minority Democrats: try to seize temporary control of the Senate floor and run those bills anyway.
It's a parliamentary move Republican’s employed last year when they were in the minority.