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Wielding power from the bottom of the heap

GOP holdouts had top officials fuming. But their budget strategy worked, says a Southland Republican.

August 22, 2007|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- This summer's real power brokers -- a handful of Republican state senators -- sat at an outdoor patio across the street from the Capitol on Monday night, sipping cocktails, smoking cigars and savoring artichoke dip.

Chatting among themselves, they seemed to revel in their newfound status.

Normally the lowest caste in the Legislature -- backbenchers in a leadership-driven institution, and, even worse, members of the party perpetually in the minority -- the lawmakers had become the arbiters of how and when state services could resume.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature's leaders had been struggling for weeks to resolve California's budget deadlock, one the backbenchers had created by refusing to cough up the single vote still needed to approve the spending plan. Their rebellion left the Capitol's regular powers fuming.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who had earlier called the GOP insurrection an act of "fiscal terrorism," said Tuesday that their jovial conduct on the restaurant patio was "embarrassing for them and embarrassing for the institution."

"They were whooping it up," Perata told reporters. "To take glee and delight over people who are suffering because the state had not passed a budget, that is very troubling."

The rebels' signature achievement in the 51-day impasse, members of both parties said, was leveraging their influence to an unprecedented height through two rules, one old and the other new.

Because California requires a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the Legislature to pass a budget, Democrats have always needed a few GOP votes. Currently, that translates into six Republican votes in the 80-member Assembly and two in the 40-member Senate.

This year, the Senate Republicans made a new rule for themselves: None of their 15 members could vote for a spending plan unless a majority of the caucus agreed to let them. That meant that only eight legislators in a body of 120 could hold the state budget hostage until their demands were met.

And that's what they did. Even after Assembly Republicans signed off on a budget July 20, the Senate Republicans issued set after set of new ultimatums, not only to Schwarzenegger and the Democrats but also to their leader, Dick Ackerman of Irvine.

At least three times during the 7 1/2 -week standoff, Ackerman told Schwarzenegger and his negotiating partners that they had an agreement, only to return to his membership and be told: "No deal."

The last time was Monday afternoon, just before the GOP crew repaired to the restaurant patio.

Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who had broken from his colleagues to support the budget at the beginning of the month, said Ackerman was shocked that his colleagues rebuffed his last proposal.

"I thought I was going to need to use a defibrillator on him," Maldonado said. "When you're negotiating a state budget, you need a leader who can make decisions on the spot. That's why we have a leader."

Maldonado said the system his colleagues had set up undermined normal negotiations, because it was being controlled by people who were fundamentally opposed to the framework of the spending plan that had been developed over the last eight months.

"We were sitting there waiting for . . . people to say 'yes' who were never going to vote for a budget anyway," he said.

Indeed, only Maldonado and Ackerman ended up supporting it on the Senate floor Tuesday, even after the GOP extracted a few extra concessions. Twelve Republicans, including Jim Battin of La Quinta, Tom Harman of Huntington Beach, Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, Bob Margett of Arcadia, George Runner of Antelope Valley and Mark Wyland of Escondido, voted no.

"We had gone as far as we could probably go," Battin said, recalling the final caucus meeting Tuesday morning. "Dick said, 'Who's voting for the budget?' and nobody raised their hand except Abel. So Dick said, 'I will.' "

Battin said that Perata's attack on their patio respite was unwarranted and that they were simply discussing the budget while waiting for the Senate to be called back into session.

And he said the GOP pact had worked: "It's an effective way for our caucus to speak with one voice and improve the budget."

--

jordan.rau@latimes.com

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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