OLYMPIA — Three conservative state senators have decided to remove their names from the website of the chamber’s majority caucus, a sign of discord in the coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats.
Sens. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, Don Benton and Pam Roach said Wednesday they were still in the caucus but would no longer vote with it simply to preserve unity.
Holmquist Newbry, of Moses Lake, already had removed her name, while Benton, of Vancouver, and Roach, of Auburn, said they soon would and could be joined by another member.
The senators said they were particularly upset that moderate coalition leaders did not hold a caucus vote or committee hearing before agreeing two weeks ago to support a version of the state “Dream Act,” a Democrat-priority bill to allow financial aid for students illegally brought to the United States as children.
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“Conservatives were railroaded,” Benton said of the move, while Holmquist Newbry said it was a “major disappointment.”
The unrest erupted in a tense coalition meeting late Wednesday afternoon in which Benton and others pushed for a formal rule requiring that major bills get a person-by-person vote in caucus before being brought to the floor.
The proposed rule change is expected to be voted on Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom said the caucus still is united around the most important issues — jobs, education and the budget.
“Obviously, we’re not going to agree on everything,” said Tom, D-Medina, “but I think everybody has found value in what we’re been doing to move the state forward.”
In other words, as GOP Leader Mark Schoesler said, “We’re all big kids. We agree on the big picture.”
The Ritzville Republican said disagreement is inevitable in a caucus with members of widely divergent political views.
The coalition was formed before last year’s session by the Republicans, along with Tom and Potlatch Democrat Tim Sheldon.
But the upset conservatives said Wednesday the problems go beyond standard caucus infighting.
“I’m serving under the worst majority leader in 20 years,” said Benton, calling Tom “extremely manipulative.”
Roach said caucus leaders treat some members poorly while others are “elevated to special status.”
Several leaders and allies refuted those criticisms.
About Benton’s remark, Tom said, “We each have our moments.”
“I think even the Bentons of the world understand we’ve done amazing things for the state of Washington,” he said.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican regarded as quite conservative, called Tom “the best majority leader I’ve ever had.”
And Sheldon, Tom’s fellow renegade Democrat, said the Majority Coalition Caucus includes more input from members than the other side does.
Several senators said Sheldon spoke at Wednesday’s caucus meeting and received loud applause for providing perspective from 23 years in the Legislature.
“Issues like this always come up, especially in a short session when there’s a lot of pressure,” Sheldon said in an interview. “The most important thing is staying the majority.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal