NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state Senate Republicans and two rogue Democrats said they wrested control of the Senate from the Democratic leadership on Monday in an unresolved dispute that had both sides claiming victory.
The chaos threatened to throw a range of pending bills into disarray, including pension reform, New York City’s mayoral control of the schools, and gay marriage.
A gay marriage bill has passed the Democrat-led Assembly, but faces a more difficult vote in the Senate regardless of which party is in charge and in spite of Democratic Governor David Paterson’s strong support.
The Republicans were attempting to regain control of the state Senate, a last bastion of GOP power in the state of New York that fell into Democratic hands for the first time in decades after the November 2008 elections.
It was part of a larger electoral trend in which the Republicans lost ground in the Northeastern United States in particular.
The drama unfolded as a shouting match erupted on the Senate floor with the Democrats walking out and shutting off the lights and video cameras while the Republicans attempted to replace Democratic Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.
Republicans said a motion to replace Smith won by a vote of 32 to 30, with two Democrats voting with all 30 Republicans to name Republican Senator Dean Skelos to the post.
“A new bipartisan coalition elected today has delivered on the promises for reform that the Senate Democrat leadership failed to keep,” Skelos said in a statement, faulting the Democrats for negotiating the state budget in secret and enacting record increases in taxes and spending.
Skelos was the Senate Majority Leader after his predecessor, Joseph Bruno, resigned in the spring of 2008.
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Republicans said one of the Democrats who sided with them, Pedro Espada, becomes Senate president pro tempore. The other Democrat was Hiram Monserrate, who said he and Espada had formed a bipartisan coalition and will conference with Democrats. Both men are Latino.
Skelos said the new leadership coalition, which was arranged with the help of millionaire businessman Tom Golisano, would empower the Latino community. Galisano moved to Florida after the Democrats raised income taxes on the rich.
Monserrate has a felony charge pending against him; Espada has been fined for not disclosing campaign contributions.
However, Smith said he was still at the helm, saying the chamber’s session was “gaveled out” before the vote.
“This was an illegal and unlawful attempt to gain control of the Senate and reverse the will of the people who voted for a Democratic Majority,” Smith said in a statement.
Asked by Albany reporters what he would do if the Republicans call the state Senate back into session, Smith shrugged and declined to say whether a lawsuit would result.
Smith said he would not recall the Senate into session until “we have it all straightened out and clear.” Asked repeatedly about the betrayal by two members of his party, Smith said he thinks of them as his colleagues and friends.
It took several weeks for Smith to craft a compromise that gave him the Democratic majority after the November elections and the Republicans’ new coalition mirrored a preliminary power-sharing accord Smith devised and then discarded.
Reporting by Joan Gralla; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Flood Morrow in Albany; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Jan Paschal
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