Democratic Bargain Greeted With Relief — But Will It Work?

The Democrats have patched together a ruling coalition in the State Senate, but how well it will work is another story.

In order to create peace with the gang of three renegade senators who had withheld support for him as majority leader, State Senator Malcolm Smith – who led the Democratic conference when it was in the minority – appears to have agreed to rewrite the chamber’s rules to split the powers of the majority leader.

Early, unofficial accounts of the deal say that Smith will serve as president pro tempore; Senator Pedro Espada Jr., will have the title of majority leader and occupy a major spot on the Rules Committee. Senator Carl Kruger will be named chairman of the Finance Committee. Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., the third holdout, will reportedly be named chairman of the Committee on Aging.

“I’m happy that I’m part of changing the rules of the senate,” Diaz said. “And I believe that every senator will benefit, and I think we will all be better off with the rules that we agreed to. We’re all a very happy Democratic family.”

Ostensibly, the Democratic-controlled chamber will offer more power to individual members to bring legislation to the floor – reforms that Smith has been talking about, and which highlighted rhetoric from the leader Thursday. But with such a narrow partisan advantage – two seats – things could get unworkable quickly.

Sources say that part of the deal to get Diaz was that same-sex marriage would not be on the table this year. The issue has long been a plank of the progressive agenda, and the report prompted this statement from advocate Alan Van Capelle of the Empire State Pride Agenda: “We would expect that any rumors that marriage equality was somehow a part of this deal are just that–rumors. Civil rights should never be a bargaining chip in any political leadership battle, and we would be outraged if the issue of marriage equality was even part of the discussions.”

The case shows how one senator harping on an issue–though Senate sources have said they doubt that same-sex marriage has enough Democratic votes to pass even without Diaz–can kill it. Tom Duane, who is openly gay and has been advocated equal marriage rights, addressed the issue at a forum last month, when the Gang of Three was flirting with Republicans:

“The Democratic leader has assured, has promised, has pledged, to put marriage on the floor,” Duane said. “Be a Democrat, vote for the Democratic leader, put the Democrats in charge.”

So what’s to stop Duane from now declaring he won’t support the deal, putting it short of the needed votes to pass? Or an upstate senator–none of the leadership slots are relegated to senators from north of the Bronx, in a sense passing over the entire region–from splitting off in a regional protest? Bad behavior, Irene Liu points out, was met with significant reward.

There’s lots of dissatisfaction within the ranks about the deal, some Democratic Senate sources say, but the general feeling is that at least its better than a chamber controlled by Republicans.

Majority Leader Dean Skelos issued a statement congratulating Smith on winning “the support needed to become the next leader of the state senate” and pledging to work toward an orderly transition. Smith replied that he will put together a team to work with Skelos.

David Paterson, for one, seemed relieved at the deal. He is faced with a budget deficit approaching $15 billion, and sat in the room yesterday as Smith and the Gang of Three worked out the deal at the University Club in Manhattan.

“I thought it was early. Let me tell you something: if I had a deciding vote, I might stretch it out to the last minute because the more you stretch it out, the more your price goes up. So actually, I am very, very impressed that these gentlemen reached an agreement far less and far earlier than I thought they would. I thought this would go down to the last few days,” Paterson told Azi before a fund-raiser for Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.  “What’s really important, and maybe more important than that, is somebody’s got to come back to Albany in January and help me cut huge amounts off of the deficit, and to establish that legislatures have a strong role in this process.

Democratic Bargain Greeted With Relief — But Will It Work?