Plan to put politics aside is troubled by politics

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OLYMPIA — The unprecedented offer by the new state Senate majority to share power might turn out to be the coalition of the unwilling.

When two men elected as Democrats joined with 23 Republicans to form what they dubbed the Majority Coalition Caucus, they bragged at their generous offer to the folks they’d just displaced in power.

Six of the Senate’s 15 committees would be chaired by suddenly-minority Democrats. Three others would have equal numbers and be run by co-chairmen from each party. Sure, the coalition leaders acknowledged, the major committees will be run by Republicans. But the 6-6-3 deal is far more-generous than the one co-chaired committee Democrats had offered them.

“I would have to imagine that they would welcome that,” said designated Majority Leader Rodney Tom of Bellevue.

The coalition leaders were incredulous when it was suggested that Democrats might not, in fact, welcome the deal being announced in their absence, that maybe they should have chatted with Democrats before calling a press conference staged as though it was announcing world peace.

It now looks increasingly likely that barring reopened negotiations and better terms, Democrats in the Senate might decide that being in the minority is just fine with them. Rather than accept what they have termed a “take-it-or-leave-it deal” that might be less about power-sharing than blame-sharing, they can just sit back and watch. Given how they feel about Tom, the man who many feel betrayed his fellow Democrats, they might enjoy watching him struggle.

And cynics (OK, me) might say that Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray would prefer to run for mayor of Seattle from the safety of the minority where he won’t have to support budget compromises that anger liberals, where he is free to lambaste the expected cuts to social programs.

In 2003 when a little-known senator from Sammamish was given the job of crafting a no-new-taxes budget in the midst of a recession, he realized that while Republicans had a numerical majority, they didn’t have a philosophical majority.

Dino Rossi was able to craft a budget that passed with 24 Republicans and four Democrats by softening cuts to social programs as best he could. That budget was used by Democrats and their surrogates to bludgeon him in three different statewide campaigns, but it was not far from the plan presented by then-Gov. Gary Locke.

Tom knows that history, having served that year in the House Republican minority. The new coalition, he said, plans to “govern from the middle.”

Yet while the Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Majority-Coalitioner has 25 signatures on a fairly general governing manifesto, that doesn’t necessarily translate into 25 votes on any specific piece of legislation.

His coalition ranges from moderates like Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup to conservatives like Don Benton of Vancouver and Mike Padden of Spokane. To make the coalition even more fragile, two of the 25 signators have resigned and it is possible, even likely, they will be replaced by even-more-conservative appointees.

Tom seems to understand the troubling math, saying he hoped — even expected — that more Democrats would join him and maverick Tim Sheldon.

“It’s a coalition that I think can reach out to all members in the Washington state Senate,” Tom said. “If you look at the goals that we’re trying to accomplish, I think there are a lot of members that will join with this coalition in moving forward.”

Though it hasn’t happened yet, it might eventually — if not formally then at least via Democratic votes for budgets and bills. But those votes won’t come free, especially if the request is made late in session when desperation sets in.

The big question will be whether the remaining Democrats will stay together and work a deal, or splinter and each go it alone.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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