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Heated Standoff Grips New York State Politics

June 23, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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After weeks of political strife and power struggles between the New York State Senate's Republicans and Democrats, Gov. David Paterson Tuesday called an emergency session in an effort to end the stalemate that has left major legislation hanging in the balance. A reporter updates the story.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a political drama in New York state. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been over two weeks since Senate Republicans in New York staged a coup and replaced the Democratic Senate leader, or so they thought.

In the interim, senators have been locked out of their chamber. The two sides have gone to court. One key player has switched parties twice. And the governor has pleaded for a resolution.

Here to explain the situation and what the deadlock means for key legislative priorities is Casey Seiler, state editor of the Albany Times Union.

And, Casey, to give people a flavor of the current political combat, what happened today in New York’s Senate chamber?

CASEY SEILER, Albany Times Union: Today the governor called an extraordinary session which would have required the senators, all 62 of them, to show up in the chamber. The Democrats arrived a little bit after noontime and took control of the dias where the presiding officer of the Senate sits.

At about 2 o’clock, when the Republicans said they would arrive for their own non-extraordinary session, they arrived in the chamber, and their presiding officer approached the podium, was turned away by the sergeant-at-arms, and then essentially gaveled in, in the well directly in front of the dias.

They then proceeded to essentially speed-read a lot of the non-controversial legislation that the governor wants to get passed before the end of this Senate session. They weren’t able to get through it entirely, however, because at 3 o’clock, which was the time that the governor had set for his own extraordinary session, the Democrats, as they had been commanded to do by the governor, gaveled in their own session.

What ensued was about 20, 25 minutes of what you can only call parallel or dueling sessions, with two sets of presiding officers, two sets of majority leaders, neither pair acknowledging the legitimacy of the other when they were to be recognized to speak.

And ultimately, after the Democrats gaveled out, the senators began milling around. They began conversing, as they would usually do at the end of a session. And, meanwhile, the Republicans were trying to continue on with their session, criticizing the secretary of the Senate and that kind of thing.

It devolved into what I can only describe as an unruly study hall atmosphere.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the saga begins when the Democrats take over control of their New York State Senate after long years in the minority. How come they aren’t still in charge?

CASEY SEILER: Well, coming out of the November elections, as you say, the chamber was split 32-30, with the Democrats taking the majority for the first time in about four decades.

The New York state legislature is famously dysfunctional. It’s been determined to be so by a number of think-tanks. The legislatures are — it’s a very strong leader system.

And what the Republicans were able to do on June 8th, the day of the coup, was peel off two Democratic senators, Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada, both of which are dealing with ethical issues, legal issues.

Hiram Monserrate has been indicted for felony assault from an incident back in November or December involving his girlfriend, when her face was slashed. And Pedro Espada is facing investigations from a number of state entities into his political finance activities and into several nonprofits that he works on.

Those two Democratic senators threw their support behind the 30 members of the Republican coalition. They re-elected the Republican leader as the majority leader. And the coalition then installed Pedro Espada as the Senate’s president pro tempore, which is because New York does not have a lieutenant governor, since Gov. David Paterson stepped up to replace Eliot Spitzer about 14 months ago, it makes Pedro Espada the second man in line to the governorship.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, New York state has a lot of pending business. The Senate is not ruling, I guess, on things that the Assembly is passing out. Is there any end to this drama in the near term?

CASEY SEILER: In the near term, that’s a very, very good question. Monserrate switched his loyalties back to the Democrats about a week after the coup. That left the session essentially split 31-31. And that’s where it’s remained deadlocked.

The State Supreme Court, a State Supreme Court justice about a week ago, a week ago today, in fact, essentially dismissed a Democratic suit, essentially by saying not that either side didn’t have arguments on their side, but that the judiciary should not get involved in a matter that would have such a drastic impact on a co-equal branch of government. In the near term…

RAY SUAREZ: Casey, I’m going to have to stop you there, but hopefully…

CASEY SEILER: Oh, I’m sorry.

RAY SUAREZ: .. this ends soon and we can talk to you again. Casey Seiler, thanks for joining us.

CASEY SEILER: Thank you.