Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bait and Switch

The stakes in the senate leadership battle just got raised. As the NY Times reports this morning:

"In a move that could help woo three Democrats whose votes will determine which party will control the New York State Senate next year, Republicans are planning to grant more autonomy and power to key committees, officials said on Monday. The most striking change will involve the Senate Finance Committee, which plays a major role in budget planning and has the power to approve all of the governor’s nominations to top executive branch jobs. Under the plan, the Finance Committee would be given its own funds in the state budget, allowing it to operate almost independently from the rest of the Senate. Traditionally in the Legislature, committee leaders are effectively figureheads who defer to the Senate and Assembly leaders."

The senate move comes on top of some "over-the-top" comments that were made by the WFP's Bertha Lewis about the possibility that one of the dissidents, Brooklyn's Carl Kruger, might get the coveted housing committee chair. Lewis charged that Kruger was, "palling around with Republican terrorists." Another supporter of Smith's, Manhattan Senator Tom Duane, had upset a second recalcitrant lawmaker, Ruben Diaz, because of the Bronx senator's position on gay rights.

So Smith finds that his ascension has just gotten a lot more complicated-with Republican senate leader Skelos talking the bipartisan game that Kruger, Espada and Diaz find attractive: "But the change would also empower Senate Republicans to offer an especially attractive post to one of the three Democrats — Senators Rubén Díaz Sr. and Carl Kruger and Senator-elect Pedro Espada Jr. — who have not yet committed to supporting Malcolm A. Smith, the Senate’s top Democrat. Mr. Smith needs their votes to become majority leader when the Senate meets in January. John E. McArdle, a Senate Republican spokesman, said that the overhaul was intended to provide “a more bipartisan basis for functioning” and could extend to other committees, allowing rank-and-file members of both parties to participate more."

The independent finance chair would have, not only a great deal of autonomy, but the resources to go with it. As the NY Post describes this morning : "Senate Republicans, who narrowly lost majority control on Election Day, are moving to create a nearly $6 million honey pot designed to encourage one of the "Gang of Three" Democrats to defect to the GOP side, The Post has learned."

This is, as the Post points out, one mighty big carrot: "For the first time in 14 years, the Senate budget, which cannot be altered by the governor, will contain a separate $5.9 million expenditure for the powerful Finance Committee, the chairman of which will be chosen in January by the next majority leader. "It's a carrot that people will take a look at," a Senate source said. "The money will be there for whoever heads the Senate Finance Committee next year, it means power and influence and a seat at the table for whoever is the chairman."

So clearly, the Republicans are pulling out all of the stops-but the bipartisan template could be co-opted by any putative leader-imitation being the greatest form of flattery. Here's Kruger's response to the Times: "In an interview last week, Mr. Kruger said that such a change would bring the Finance Committee’s leader “to its rightful place, where the finance person was looked at as maybe the second most important person in the conference and in the Senate.” Mr. Kruger would not say whether he was in discussions to assume the chairmanship of a newly empowered Finance Committee, but said “anything is possible.”

In this high stakes game of political chess, the next move goes to the Democrats; and the threats from some quarters could lead to unintended consequences that the party wants to avoid: "Democrats will hold 32 seats in the Senate next year, while Republicans are likely to hold 30. But Mr. Espada, Mr. Kruger and Mr. Díaz have remained coy about whether they will support Mr. Smith or the Republican leader, Senator Dean G. Skelos, leaving control of the Senate up for grabs."

Your move Mr. Smith-or perhaps it is the governor that needs to weigh in here; that is, if he wants to be able to help choose his dance partner in what will no doubt be a difficult budget season. What we do know, is that this whole fight has just been given a greater degree of complexity and nuance.