"Congratulations, Mr. Minority Leader, you fooled me," said an angry Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-3), standing on the floor of the state senate shortly after midnight on Friday, March 2. A surprise Republican coup—executed literally in the dead of night—had just led to the passage of a secret Republican budget, by a vote of 25–24 .
Seizing upon a rarely used and ominously named parliamentary maneuver called "The 9th Order of Business," three supposed Democrats—state senators Rodney Tom (D-48), Jim Kastama (D-25), and Tim Sheldon (D-35)—had joined with senate Republicans to take procedural control of the senate away from Brown and the Dems. Then they used their new conservative majority to pull a heretofore-unseen budget out of their back pockets and slam it onto the floor, demanding it become the new state budget.
No surprise, their budget is "extremist"—to use the description offered by Democratic senator Ed Murray (D-43)—and people are furious: furious at the "Democrats" who switched sides to make this happen after months of public deliberation and negotiation over a budget that was previously on its way to passing, furious at the shortsightedness of it all (there's no way our Democratic house or governor will agree to this "extremist" budget, so what's the end game here?), and furious that we're now headed for a special session (which, of course, is not without its costs).
Throughout this session and the last, Democrats say, they negotiated in good faith with their Republican counterparts on a number of crucial issues. Yet, in the end, the Republicans failed to return the favor. Having secured many of the compromises and reforms they demanded (no new taxes, four-year budgeting, teacher evaluation, state control of teacher health care benefits, permanent suspension of the class-size-reducing Initiative 728, and so on), the Republicans then turned around and—with the aid of their three Democratic turncoats—proceeded to, as Senator Murray aptly put it, shove "a narrow, extremist agenda... down our throats."
It's beginning to sound like the Democratic leadership in both houses finally understands that, in light of all this, the time for bipartisan cooperation and compromise is over. The Republicans are now playing serious hardball, and as every major leaguer knows, when their pitcher beans one of your batters, your pitcher has to bean one of theirs. Otherwise, they'll just bean all your batters without fear of retribution, until your entire lineup is brushed back six feet off the plate.
"I think the idea of bipartisanship is pretty dead," Murray said. "I think the trust level is gone." He described himself as "extremely angry" at how the three Democrats who sided with the Republicans "dealt with us," and said "it will have ramifications for years to come in this institution."
But, he added: "We're all professionals."
So what's the next step? Murray pointed out that the senate Republican leadership would need to find 50 votes in the house to get their budget approved—which is never going to happen—while Murray, chair of the powerful Ways & Means Committee, needs to peel off only one senate vote to pass his preferred budget.
"Either they have to be willing to compromise some—which they were not willing to do before—or we're going to be here a very long time," Murray said. "I will not agree to a budget that eliminates the Basic Health plan, that eliminates the Disability Lifeline, that eliminates food assistance to immigrants—those are just nonnegotiable items."
This is the language of a guy who sees time as being on his side.
And it does seem that time, at this point in the budget war, is with the Democrats. Without control of the house or the governor's mansion, the Republican coup leaders in the senate have no realistic way of getting their preferred budget approved, and a protracted stalemate probably doesn't strengthen their hand. According to a source in Olympia, the special session that these Republicans are about to force costs $20,000 a day—and Republicans will surely be blamed for this unnecessary expenditure for our cash-strapped state.
Plus, the longer their "secret" budget proposal hangs out there, the less secret it becomes. And a budget that cuts education funding and state support for poor children (among many other things) isn't likely to age well with the public.
In the meantime, it's time for Democrats to start whipping fastballs at Republican heads. Because that, alas, is how this game is played.