If there was ever an odd couple in the state Legislature it would be Sens. Ed Murray and Joe Zarelli. Murray's a liberal, openly gay Democratic lawmaker from Capitol Hill. Zarelli's a conservative Republican from a rural Clark County who opposes gay marriage. Yet during the past three months the two men met day after...

OLYMPIA — If there was ever an odd couple in the state Legislature, it would be Sens. Ed Murray and Joe Zarelli.

Murray’s a liberal, openly gay Democratic lawmaker from Capitol Hill who supports creating a state income tax. Zarelli’s a Republican from rural Clark County who opposes gay marriage and once got a perfect score from the Washington Conservative Union.

They are polar opposites.

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Yet during the past three months, the two men met day after day to hash out the first truly bipartisan budget that anyone in Olympia can recollect. The Senate approved the proposal, which makes $4.8 billion in cuts, by a 34-13 vote last Monday. Now they have to negotiate a compromise with the House and governor’s office.

No one has referred to them as the odd couple, at least within earshot, they say. “I dare say you shouldn’t use it,” Zarelli said in an interview. “If you do, I’m the clean one.”

Murray, 55, is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and works part time for the University of Washington planning department. Zarelli, 49, is the ranking Republican on the panel and works as a business consultant.

The budget they created, with the support of their members, closes a $5.1 billion shortfall largely through cuts. It hits K-12 and higher education, sharply scales back health-care and social-service programs, and reduces salaries for state employees and teachers.

The proposal has about $300 million more in cuts than the House budget, which doesn’t reduce teacher pay and would privatize the liquor-wholesale system to raise new money. But the two proposals have more similarities than differences, even though the House plan was drafted solely by Democrats.

Traditional Democratic supporters call both budgets “immoral” and chide lawmakers for not closing tax breaks to raise money. Business groups largely support the austere budgets — and the bipartisan cooperation in the Senate in particular.

The fact that two senators from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and their respective caucuses, could craft a budget at all is viewed as a minor miracle.

“This is a really big deal,” Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said shortly before the Senate budget passed. “This is the first really bipartisan budget ever. OK. Ever.”

Mutual respect

From the beginning, it wasn’t clear if it would work. The parties had not cooperated to this extent before, and there was no assurance they could this time. “I was doubtful it would continue to the end,” Zarelli said.

He and Murray had developed a strong working relationship over the years and say they have a lot of respect for each other. When Murray chaired the capital and transportation committees in the House, he collaborated on legislation several times with Zarelli in the Senate.

But the two aren’t exactly close friends. Both have been in the Legislature since 1995, and in all that time they’ve socialized once, enjoying drinks with other lawmakers one evening this year.

Both men also have strongly held views and aren’t shy about making them known.

That became apparent at a recent online chat with readers arranged by The Seattle Times, where the two started arguing privately about education funding while their laptops booted up.

Zarelli made the case that education spending actually increases in their budget while Murray said that ignores the inflationary pressures that drive up costs. The debate escalated until a reporter sitting by them said, “Do you have to argue about this now?”

Like a light switch had been flipped, they started joking as if nothing had happened.

That attitude, Murray and Zarelli said, was key to negotiating the budget. Murray estimates they spent a couple hundred hours working on the proposal in meetings that at times lasted up to four hours.

They would debate the points, take nothing personally, having checked any personal differences at the door.

Consider a recent debate when the two squared off on the Senate floor over a bill incorporating domestic partnerships into a state parentage law — a measure heavily supported by the gay and lesbian community.

Zarelli, who voted against landmark gay-rights legislation approved in 2006, argued the measure would make unnecessary changes to existing law.

“While this is a very emotional subject and we’re trying to solve what some see as an injustice for a small percentage of the public out there, let’s not forget about how this is going to affect the great majority of the public,” he said.

Murray, the lead architect of the gay-rights measure five years ago, argued back, “Our small percentage of the population should be treated fairly. Our families should be treated like other families.”

As soon the floor session ended, “we were in a conference room negotiating a budget,” Murray said. “It wasn’t personal.”

Finding middle ground

Zarelli said he had a few key goals during the budget negotiations.

“Our base values were to get some reforms, to live within our means and have a better system moving forward. We got that,” he said.

Under the Senate proposal, the state would “have a budget that doesn’t spend more than we have coming in” for the first time since 1997, Zarelli said, adding that it also includes things such as requiring certain state services to be contracted out for competitive bids.

What did the Democrats get?

“The framework we agreed on is we wouldn’t eliminate, but we would shrink,” Murray said. “Our win is the preservation of programs.”

For example, the Senate proposal retains but scales back the state Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized health insurance for the working poor.

“I believe that if it had simply been a Republican budget, they would have eliminated more programs,” Murray said.

Although the budget is being heralded as a bipartisan success, only nine Republicans voted for it. Zarelli said more would have but some members were absent.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, voted against the budget but said he had no regrets about working with Democrats. He ended up opposing it, he said, over concerns about double-digit college-tuition increases included in the proposal.

But Benton still thinks Republicans won significant concessions from Democrats. And he said he trusted Murray in the process, calling him a “realist.”

“I’ve worked with him on transportation issues for years. I have great respect for him and Joe Zarelli both. That’s one of the primary reasons I supported this approach,” he said.

Traditional Democratic supporters aren’t happy with any of the proposed budgets before the Legislature, and Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, noted that the Senate proposal cuts deeper than the House or the governor’s budgets.

“If that’s what bipartisanship gets you, a smaller government and more pain to the poor and vulnerable, then I guess it’s not such a good idea,” he said.

But Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, said the bipartisan approach is what the public wants.

“They don’t give a darn whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. The average voter out there wants the problem solved,” he said.

All this begs the question of whether this cooperation between the parties is an aberration or a sign of things to come.

Murray and Zarelli say they don’t know.

Several factors combined to force bipartisanship this year. Voters last November approved an initiative that requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, or voter approval, to increase taxes. That largely took the issue off the table.

Murray also noted he didn’t have a “working Democratic majority.”

“We have a group of conservative suburban Democrats in our caucus, and the only process they were willing to participate in is a bipartisan process,” Murray said. “Either Joe Zarelli was going to write a budget with a group of our conservative Democrats or I was going to write a bipartisan budget.”

Murray said he would have included Zarelli in the budgeting process regardless, but the reality is “there was very little choice.”

He also cautioned that the Legislature still hasn’t negotiated a final budget as it heads into a special session this week. There’s no guarantee Republicans will vote for the final product.

“We’re not done,” Murray said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com