Trump Appointment Leaves Washington State Senate With a Tie

by | January 27, 2017

By Melissa Santos

A Washington state senator resigned Tuesday to take a job with President Donald Trump's administration, leaving the state Senate temporarily split 24-24 between Republicans and Democrats.

State Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, accepted a job Tuesday as a special assistant to the U.S. secretary of agriculture, according to a news release.

Dansel's appointment came a day after news spread that another Washington state lawmaker, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, accepted a temporary position with the Environmental Protection Agency.

For now, Ericksen -- who was deputy director of Trump's Washington state campaign team -- will be leading communications for the transition team at the EPA. Ericksen said he doesn't plan to resign his Senate seat right now and is unsure if he will get a permanent job within the administration, but he's open to the idea.

The senators' new jobs prompted questions Tuesday about whether Democrats could take advantage of a tie in the Senate -- either now or in the future -- to pass legislation that so far has proved unpopular with Republican leaders.

Right now, Democrats hold a narrow majority in the state House, while Republicans control the Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.

Some Democratic lawmakers speculated Tuesday that state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, was also a candidate for a job in the Trump administration. But in an interview, Baumgartner denied rumors that he had just traveled to Washington, D.C., and said he wasn't interviewing for a federal job.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the current tie in the state Senate shouldn't disturb lawmakers' 105-day session to any significant degree.

Schoesler noted that past Republican vacancies in the Legislature have been filled within a week, while other experienced lawmakers could step in to lead the Local Government Committee that Dansel chaired.

What's more, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn and the chamber's majority floor leader, said he doesn't plan to hold a Senate floor session until a replacement for Dansel is appointed.

Still, some Democrats think the trend of Republican senators going to work for Trump could provide opportunities to advance legislation that Republican Senate leaders have blocked.

Should Dansel's seat remain open -- or if Ericksen or Baumgartner later resigns from the Senate to take a federal job -- minority Senate Democrats could bring bills to the Senate floor with the aid of Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a former Democratic senator who now presides over the chamber, said Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.

As lieutenant governor, Washington's Constitution grants Habib the power to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate. Yet some lawmakers disagree about whether that privilege applies just to procedural motions, such as bringing legislation to the Senate floor, or if Habib also can cast the deciding vote on a piece of legislation, Fain said.

On Tuesday, Nelson said she wouldn't hesitate to put Habib's powers to the test if an opportunity arose. She said she was still consulting with legislative lawyers to see whether Senate Democrats could call floor sessions independently of Fain and other Republican leaders to help make that happen.

Nelson said she hasn't ruled out trying to push bills through the Senate during periods where Ericksen is away in Washington, D.C., due to his temporary job with the EPA.

"If we need to do so, we certainly would be looking at that option," Nelson said.

In particular, Nelson said she would seize any opportunity to advance a bill delaying a planned cut to how much school districts can collect in local property tax levies. The proposal to delay the "levy cliff" passed the state House on Monday, but Republican leaders in the Senate said they're reluctant to take up the legislation absent a larger plan to fix how the state pays for schools.

Nelson said she also would try to take advantage of a Senate tie to force votes on bills aiming to protect women's right to equal pay for equal work, to get dark money out of politics and to improve representation of minorities in elections.

The latter measure, the Washington State Voting Rights Act, has passed the Democratic-controlled state House for the past three years, but each time has stalled in the Senate.

"It's always best if we could try to work collaboratively, but so far when we have tried to move some of this to the floor, that hasn't occurred," Nelson said Tuesday.

"I would assume if Sen. Schoesler were in my shoes, he would be doing the exact same thing," Nelson added.

Fain said he would be surprised if Senate Democrats try to push through controversial legislation while Dansel's seat is vacant or when Ericksen is out of town, because "it would create incredible bad blood."

"I just wouldn't imagine that exploiting that would be something that would be worth considering," Fain said.

Keeley Smith, a spokeswoman for Habib, said Habib's office thinks the state constitution is clear in saying the lieutenant governor can cast tiebreaking votes. But that won't be necessary, she said, if Republican officials move quickly to fill Dansel's seat, something Habib is urging them to do.

Republican Party officials were already working Tuesday to appoint Dansel's replacement.

Republican precinct committee officers in Dansel's Eastern Washington district must produce a list of three nominees to fill his seat. County council members across multiple counties will then choose a replacement from among those three.

Caleb Heimlich, the executive director of the Washington State Republican Party, said he is trying to organize a meeting of local precinct committee officers for Feb. 4, with the hope that county council members could appoint a replacement for Dansel as soon as Feb. 6.

Schoesler, a wheat farmer, said that despite the temporary uncertainty it creates in the Senate, Dansel's appointment to the federal Department of Agriculture should be a boon for the state's farming and timber industries. Schoesler said having a Washington state official working on agricultural issues at the federal level will help ensure the state's concerns aren't forgotten.

"As disappointed as I am to see a colleague leave -- especially during session -- I think it's good for our state," Schoesler said.

Dansel's work in Washington, D.C., will begin immediately, officials said.

Don Benton, a former Republican state senator from Vancouver who didn't seek re-election last year, has also taken a new job with Trump's EPA transition team, The Seattle Times reported. Benton, who was Trump's Washington state campaign director, was named senior White House adviser supervising the agency's transition.

Ericksen, who remains in the state Senate for now, said he's been in contact with ethics offices in Washington state and in Washington D.C. on how he can juggle time between his Washington Senate job and his temporary role at the EPA. He said he hasn't figured out exactly how he will split his time yet, but said he could "make both work."

Fain, the Senate majority floor leader, said Ericksen's travel schedule shouldn't be an issue in the Legislature this year.

"He's going to be in town for votes," Fain said.

Staff writer Walker Orenstein contributed to this report.

(c)2017 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)