In California Legislature, Moderate Democrats Hold Leverage
The most important members of the California legislature this year might not be the two Democratic leaders - despite the two-thirds supermajorities they hold in each chamber. And it almost certainly won't be the Republicans.
They've been courted for key votes in recent years but now don't have the numbers to block any bills on their own. As Ben Adler reports from Sacramento, the leverage in this legislative session may well lie with a newly-critical voting bloc: moderate Democrats.
It wasn't so long ago that Governor Jerry Brown was doing all he could to win Republican votes for a budget deal.
Brown: "Remember, hug a Republican. Thank you very much…" (applause)
That's the governor in spring 2011, speaking to a group of law enforcement officials. Then, legislative Republicans held just enough votes to block Democrats on anything requiring a two-thirds vote - like raising taxes or placing measures on the ballot. So Brown wined them and dined them, invited them to his loft a few blocks from the Capitol. But talks collapsed, and by the end of the year, the governor wasn't in a hugging mood anymore:
Brown: "I'm not gonna serve my good wine in the way I did earlier in the year."
Miller: "In years past, we've seen a number of moderate Republicans be key swing votes on previous budgets, for example."
Now, GOP political consultant Beth Miller says Democratic supermajorities in the legislature mean no more Republican leverage.
Miller: "All that action - that swing space of who's gonna vote which way - has really swung to the Democrats and the moderate Democrats who have been elected."
Many of those Democrats are new to Sacramento and edged out more liberal Democrats with help from Republican-friendly groups like the California Chamber of Commerce.
Daly: "I think restraint is a good word and it's a label that I think is reasonable to use in these - what I still consider perilous times."
Talamantes Eggman: "I don't think you'll see giant sweeping changes. I think it's a time of incremental change."
Roth: "We need to make sure the budget is balanced and remains balanced, and that we spend the public's money wisely."
Those are three freshman Democrats: Assembly members Tom Daly of Anaheim and Susan Eggman of Stockton, and Senator Richard Roth from Riverside. All three are skeptical when asked about some early Democratic proposals that would require two-thirds votes: raising taxes and fees, or in particular, tweaking California's landmark Proposition 13. Again, Daly and Roth:
Daly: "It's not a priority of mine, personally, to make changes to Prop 13."
Roth: "Some members of the Senate have indicated the thought that they want to take a look at Prop 13."
Daly: "And I'm not sure that modifying Prop 13 will help the economy."
Roth: "I think, frankly, what we need to make sure that we do is that we not harm business in the state of California."
Those freshmen are far from alone. The Senate in particular already has several moderate Democrats - more than enough to block a two-thirds vote or veto attempt if the often business-friendly Governor Brown rejects a measure passed by the more liberal legislature. Inglewood Senator Rod Wright is among the moderates.
Wright: "If we don't grow business, we don't grow revenue. And we have to be careful that we don't attempt to simply raise tax without spreading the base and expanding the economy."
Many analysts believe the "swing-vote" moderate Democrats will have leverage any time a supermajority bill comes up. And Wright expects to see tension in the Democratic caucus on the budget, taxes and a proposed overhaul of California's major environmental law.
Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg says his caucus works well together despite its variety of viewpoints. He has plenty of votes to pass controversial measures that only require a simple majority. As for bills needing a supermajority:
Steinberg: "Well, that's obviously a little more challenging. But we'll pick and choose. And when it comes to an important 27-vote measure, we'll get it. We'll get it."
And that's the thing: There are always ways for leadership and outside groups to pressure lawmakers. Still, Republican consultant Beth Miller says moderate Democrats will face that pressure from business groups, too.
Miller: "If they become just a party-line vote for the speaker or the Senate pro Tem, they're gonna have to answer to the voters at home in those competitive districts."
And not just from Republicans - California's new "top two" primary system means they could face challenges from fellow Democrats, backed by the same groups that helped them get elected in the first place.