The coup instigated last week by Republicans in the State Senate has (at least until Hiram Monserrate changes his mind yet again) landed in a bizarre, unexplored no-man’s land—one seat removed from both failure and success, a 31-31 kiss-your-sister tie in the chamber.
Granted, this denouement isn’t technically final. A lawsuit, which Democrats hope will void the coup and reinstall them as the chamber’s majority party, is still pending, while Republicans, with Pedro Espada still at their side, insist that they are now the majority party, since Democrats can’t muster the 32 votes needed to overturn the maneuver last week that made Mr. Espada the new Senate President and Dean Skelos the new majority leader.
But for all practical purposes, the battle is over and each side has been left with 31 seats. Since it takes 32 votes to do anything in the Senate, from convening a session to passing a budget, it really won’t matter if the courts rule for the Democrats or if Republicans cling to a technicality to call themselves the majority party. The result will be paralysis that will compel—probably (hopefully?) over the next few weeks—a power-sharing deal between the two parties.
Whatever the final deal is, it goes without saying that both sides won’t be happy with it. But, almost certainly, the deal will hurt the G.O.P. more than it hurts the Democrats. The reason is simple: to the extent the G.O.P. has any meaningful clout left in state government, it’s concentrated in the Senate. This is not the case for Democrats.
Just consider what would likely be the basic parameters of deal: some kind of arrangement that would rotate official control of the chamber through January 2011 and allow each party to call up a certain number of bills for a vote. In theory, this would allow both parties to pursue their own agendas and to scramble for the magical 32nd vote to pass their preferred legislation, but the game would be rigged against the Republicans.
First, Democrats would have the basic advantage of Mr. Espada’s generally liberal ideological orientation. Internal Senate politics and personality clashes may have led him to side with Republican senators for organizational purposes, but he’d still be a very ripe target for Democrats pushing legislation that is popular with their political base. After all, not only would Mr. Espada probably be personally sympathetic to their agenda, he’d also have a powerful political incentive to play along: his district is dominated by Democratic and labor machinery that can sink him in 2010. There would be no similarly ripe Democrat for Republicans to target as their 32nd vote.
The Democrats would also be positioned to lean on their control of state government for leverage. True, David Paterson is close to being a lame-duck governor, but his office still affords him certain perks and prerogatives that can be used to entice wavering Republicans to cross party lines on key votes. Plus, with the Assembly firmly in Democratic control, individual Republicans might find benefit to deal-making with the Democrats on important legislation—since the finished product would actually stand a chance of passing muster with the Assembly and governor.
Moreover, Democrats would have a powerful disincentive to teaming up with the Republican conference because of the state’s political demographics. Once, New York was a politically competitive state. Now, it isn’t. The State Senate, controlled by the G.O.P. for 40 years prior to this January, is an anachronism—and one that may be changing soon.
If, as seems likely, Democrats nominate Andrew Cuomo for governor next year, they will have a decent shot at winning back outright Senate control, and possibly planting their flag for years to come. Individual Democratic senators will have to account for this under a power-sharing plan: would it really be wise to turn on a party that could dominate Albany for a decade—or more?
We’ve actually seen a very similar situation play out before, next door in New Jersey in 2003 and 2004. As in New York, Republicans were fading from relevance in state politics, and the Senate—where they found themselves in a 20-20 tie with Democrats—was their last toehold. A power-sharing plan was hatched, and Republicans were able to stall some Democratic initiatives. But Democrats also succeeded in securing the pivotal 21st vote on several critical occasions.
2003 and 2004 marked one of the least productive legislative sessions in decades in New Jersey. But it was far better for the Democrats, who won a clear majority in the November 2003 elections, than the Republicans. History may soon repeat itself in New York.