Minority Parties Get Feisty in Budget Battles

Legislatures in Washington state and Virginia have both garnered plenty of national attention for their fights over culture wars—the push to recognize gay marriage and the controversial debate over requiring pre-abortion sonograms. But with their lawmaking sessions winding down, both states are in the midst of epic budget battles, that will almost definitely force them into special sessions. In both cases, parties out of power are using the budget debates to leverage their positions, gambles with big potential risks and payoffs should they succeed.

In Virginia, the state Senate is split evenly, 20-20. However the chamber is run with a tough conservative bent, thanks to a tie-breaking vote from the Republican lieutenant governor. Republicans rule the chamber and have their pick of committee chairs. Senate Democrats argue they're shut out of committee chairmanships and don't have nearly the power they should, given their even numbers. The lieutenant governor cannot vote on the budget, though, and Democrats saw a chance to flex some muscle. Voting together, they've already killed two budgets and recently presented a list of demands to the Republican leadership. While both sides are talking, there's been little agreement

The plan is far from foolproof. Democrats may be painted as obstructionist, and already local governments are pleading for lawmakers to come to a decision. The longer both sides hold out, the more dangerous things get for the Democrats. Republicans dominate the House and hold the governorship and are loathe to back down. Meanwhile Governor Bob McDonnell already changed his position on the sonogram bill, forcing senators to rewrite it to not force transvaginal sonograms. The move cost him with conservative voters and yielding again may be too much of a risk for the politician with national amibitions.  Of course, if they can eke out more power from the move, it may turn out to be a win. The lawmakers only have until Saturday to finish their business, so it's looking increasingly like the governor will have to call them back. What's not clear is which side will budge.

Washington's clock is almost out—the legislative session ends Thursday night, and much like Virginia, budget negotiations have turned into a bit of blinking contest. Last week, Republicans mounted an epic coup in the state Senate, when three Democrats crossed the aisle to support the GOP budget that had never had a public hearing and the rest of the Democrats had never seen before. The Democratic cross-overs have come under intense attack, and Republican minority leader now says he wishes he'd let the Dems at least read the bill. Not surprisingly, the move left Democrats raging, particularly in the House, where they hold a bigger advantage. Governor Christine Gregoire has called both sides into her office for negotiations, but much like Virginia, both sides seem eager to draw lines in the sand.

In state legislatures, minority parties get steamrolled a lot of the time, and budgets can become one of the few places to go on the offensive, generally through either blocking legislation or relying on technicalities. The manuevers are risky at best, though—the budget is after all the one thing a legislature must pass, and voters know that. If the minority party mounts an attack and loses, they can be branded obstructionist and could lose public support.

But of course to gain any power, they've got to risk something.