After weathering abuse, Sweeney makes a point as Republicans scramble on budget

TRENTON – State Sen. Tom Kean (R-Westfield) strolled in the vicinity of his Republican colleagues on the Senate Budget Committee, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) made him wait. 

And wait.

“It’s like a World Cup soccer game in here,” deadpanned Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel, slouched in a seat and watching the lingering Kean again pass the chair abandoned by state Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Washington Twp.).

“We’re four hours into this and it’s still zero zero,” Tittel explained.

But others might have argued that the score on this day was at least one to nothing; that on this dead and drab afternoon in a budget room filled with players in repose – someone had made a point.

For with Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Washington Twp.) MIA and supplemental budget bills he wouldn’t support stacked and ready for passage and in need of one more Republican vote, this was Sweeney’s version of payback to the GOP, who under the leadership of Gov. Chris Christie received a burst of energy often at Sweeney’s public expense.

After Christie vetoed the millionaire’s tax and the senate president tried to talk to reporters in the governor’s outer office, for example, doors flew open and Christie re-appeared, sending reporters scattering attentively in his direction even before Sweeney could finish a sentence.

The head Democrat, too, bristled over some pointed newspaper comments Kean made about Democratic Party leadership.

In general, “The sense is that Christie has been driving his chariot around the Statehouse and dragging Sweeney behind him,” said one political insider.

Now eager to sit in and provide the aye vote to advance the bills, Kean discovered suddenly it was his turn to writhe under the public eye, as the governor back in his inner office with a live feed to the chamber, smoldered.

When he left the budget chamber with Kean still in hover mode, Sweeney told, “The Republicans promised 17 and 33, but I haven’t been seeing that here.”

The 17 part was specifically Kean’s jurisdiction.

The Republican minority leader had told Democrats – and Christie – that he would keep every member of his Republican caucus in line as part of a budget deal with the majority party. Intent on not being blamed for shutting down government, Dems would give four votes to the budget in the Senate and eight in the Assembly.

But now Doherty refused to be an “aye” vote on the ancillary bills, which are tied to the budget, fuming at the prospect of endorsing a 25% hike on business filing fees, in the case of one of them.

There were other Republicans similarly indisposed to the ancillary bills, including state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) and state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park). They didn’t know that by signing onto the core budget, the governor’s office assumed they were signing onto the supplementals.

Doherty went ballistic.

“You got Hagedorn Hospital restored to the budget,” Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove) told his colleague, referring to the 310-bed psychiatric facility in Doherty’s district the governor intends to keep open, after scrapping the hospital in his first draft budget.

“We didn’t come here for this,” Doherty shot back. “We didn’t come here to raises taxes and fees.”

“Think about what you’re getting here,” said O’Toole. “We’re cutting the cost of state government by nine percent – that’s $4 billion. Think about building a relationship with the governor, and what that is going to do for your district.”

Doherty listened to O’Toole. There’s a history there. A friendship. Respect. When the GOP organization jettisoned Doherty in Warren and Hunterdon counties last year and closed ranks around Marcia Karrow, O’Toole was the lone Republican senator in leadership who backed Doherty.  

But Doherty didn’t like the deal.

The GOP went to Sweeney and asked him to allow Kean to sub for the disaffected senator.

Tired of the Trenton undercurrent narrative that’s he’s the hapless leader of a splintered caucus while the Republicans now have SWAT Team discipline under Christie, Sweeney let his adversaries sweat, forbidding Kean from taking Doherty’s chair all day as punishment.

No deal, he inisisted. Just a little payback.

Sweeney was notably visible throughout, coming and going with easy strides as the GOP dangled – and keep dangling.  

Kean landed in the chair by Thursday evening, and dutifully helped advance the bills. But Doherty still has to confront the reality of Monday, where the bills will surface on the floor of the senate and Republican leadership will be counting on his vote.

Sweeney shrugged when asked about Doherty’s and Kean’s and Christie’s predicament.

“That’s not my obligation,” said the Democratic leader.

After weathering abuse, Sweeney makes a point as Republicans scramble on budget