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Senate forms unprecedented new governing coalition

The leadership fight in the New York state Senate has been resolved, with a break-away Democratic faction joining with Republicans to form a new governing coalition that involves sharing the title of Temporary President of the Senate. 

Senate Republicans have joined with five Senate Democrats who form the Independent Democratic Conference. They say they will jointly rule the Senate. Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and Senate IDC Leader Jeff Klein will each share the job of Temporary President of the Senate, with the job changing between them every two weeks.  They will have equal control over which bills reach the floor, and decisions on the state budget.

The arrangement pleases many Senate Republicans, who were in danger of losing their majority party status if they had not struck a deal.

Senator Betty Little, who represents a large swath of Northern New York, says the GOP has already been working with Independent Democrats for the past two years. She predicts the new arrangement will bring functioning, bipartisan government to the Senate.

“We’ve developed trust and communication,” Little said.

The power-sharing arrangement leaves out the rest of the Senate Democrats, who are still in the Democratic Conference. Numerically, the Democrats may end up with more senators, but the loss of the break-away faction to the Republicans means most Democrats will be relegated to minority party status.

A spokesman for the remaining Senate Democrats, called the new coalition a “coup.”

“Sadly, the real victims of today's announcement are the people of our state, whose clearly expressed desire for progress on a host of issues will now be scuttled,” said Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy.

Michael Kink, a former counsel to the Senate Democrats, now runs the progressive coalition, Strong Economy For All. He says it is an open question whether the new coalition will deliver bills, like increasing the minimum wage, that he says most New Yorkers favored during elections.

“The question is whether it opens the gates more widely to progressive legislation,” said Kink. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, who organized a rally to call for Democratic leadership of the Senate, agrees that the new coalition faces a test, whether they will act on issues the base of the Democratic Party support, like campaign finance reform.

“I’ll give them credit where credit is due,” Scharff said. “But if they don’t, then this will just be another Albany coup.”

In a statement issued late in the day, the IDC said, “We are fully supportive of raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, stop and frisk reform, protecting a woman’s reproductive rights, a property tax cap and on-time budgets.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said all along that he is staying out of the Senate fight. The governor was in Buffalo when the announcement was made. But Cuomo did say on the day after elections that a coalition government in the Senate would not be a bad thing. His words, from November 8, seem to foreshadow Tuesday’s deal.  

“It’s more of a coalition, because there are three groups instead of just two,” said Cuomo. “They come to an arrangement among themselves, and whoever gets two out of three winds up winning.”
The news of the pact between the GOP and the Independent Democratic Conference comes just hours after Senator Malcolm Smith, a former head of the Senate Democrats, announced that he would join with the break-away Democrats.

Republicans already have a Democrat committed to joining with the GOP -- Brooklyn Democrat Senator Simcha Felder said shortly after elections that he would sit with the Republicans.   

And in a sign that there may be more chinks in the armor of the remaining Democrats, Senator Adriano Espaillat, in a statement, said “election season is over,” and that “it’s time for the real work to begin.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.