OLYMPIA - Two Democrats in the Washington state Senate abandoned their caucus Monday, Dec. 10, vowing to work with Republicans to control the chamber and push conservative budgeting principles.
Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch said the bipartisan cooperation would drive better policies. Under the new plan, Republicans will chair six committees, including the panel that controls the state budget, while Democrats will control another six committees. The parties will split control of three other panels, though Sheldon is on two of those committees.
"This is not about power. This is not about control," said Tom, who will rise to serve as the new majority leader. "This is about governing in a collaborative manner."
Democrats would retain control of the Environment and Marine Waters Committee, until now called the Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who represents south Bellingham and southwest Whatcom County, was that committee's chairman last session.
It's unclear whether Democrats will accept the committees they've been given to control.
"I have not negotiated or talked to anyone whatsoever in this coalition," Ranker said Monday. "Before I would consider a chairmanship ... I would need to know that all of the issues that are important to me would be a priority," including women's reproductive rights and social services.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who represents north Bellingham and the small Whatcom County cities, would rise to a co-chairmanship under the new power structure. He would share control of the new Energy and Telecommunications Committee with a Democrat.
Ericksen said the committee's goals would be to keep energy prices low and to foster high-paying jobs in energy industries.
The Republican said Monday that he expected the new caucus to stick to its principles on budget matters.
"I think it's a strong group," Ericksen said. "They're committed to fiscal responsibility and holding the line on taxes."
Democrats have a small majority in the Senate, controlling 26 of 49 seats. With the moves by Tom and Sheldon, Republicans effectively hold a 25-24 advantage.
Along with sustainable budgets, the lawmakers said they want to promote job growth, reform the education system and hold state government accountable.
Sen. Ed Murray, the Democratic leader in the upper chamber, said in a statement that he doesn't consider the Republicans' "take-it-or-leave-it plan" to be the right way forward.
"We recognize that any majority in the Senate will be an unstable one, and we are committed to forming a mutually agreed-upon way for Republicans and Democrats to work together," he said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Washington State Democrats disowned the two defecting senators. Dwight Pelz said he has long viewed Sheldon as a Republican, but the Democratic Party had invested money to re-elect Tom this year. Pelz said that won't happen again, and the party will draft a candidate to oust him next time.
"This is a decision by Rodney Tom to switch parties back again," Pelz said. "Rodney Tom is a Republican now."
Tom was initially elected as a Republican but switched parties in 2006. Pelz said he considers the latest move simply a way for Tom to fulfill his personal ambitions.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said the new approach is the sort of cooperation the people of Washington and the country want to see.
"I look forward to showing you that the Senate can put politics aside and provide a responsible, bipartisan approach to the coming session," Schoesler said.
Democrats comfortably control the state House. The new legislative session begins in January.
One Republican committee chair is Sen. Pam Roach, who was kicked out of her caucus two years ago because of accusations of mistreating staff. She was allowed back in this year during the Republican budget coup last year, but she is still barred from interacting with Senate staff.
Mike Hoover, a senior Republican attorney for the Senate, sued the chamber earlier this year and said he was subjected to a hostile and abusive workplace because of Roach. Under a settlement announced in September, the Senate reaffirmed its sanctions against Roach.
Tom said that would change and the Senate committee that handles personnel matters would lift sanctions against Roach. He declined to assess how that decision could impact the lawsuit settlement, but said Roach had vowed to run the committee appropriately.
"She's going to act in a professional manner," Tom said. "She has served her two-year period, and I think it's time to move on."
Hoover, who now works for the House, declined comment.
Staff writer Ralph Schwartz and AP writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.