Schwarzenegger irks California Republicans in state budget battle

The 50-day impasse exposes intraparty tensions prompted by the governor's deals with Democrats.

By holding up California's long overdue budget, lawmakers from the governor's own party have sent a shot across his bow, saying essentially: Arnold, what about us?

For weeks, a group of 14 Republican senators has stalled a $103 billion spending plan that – like other recent deals of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "postpartisanship" era – represented an agreement primarily between the Republican governor and the Democratic power brokers in the legislature.

The governor huddled with legislative leaders over the weekend in an attempt to end the 50-day impasse. If no deal emerges, lawmakers could reconvene from a summer recess Monday in a mood to start over from scratch, even as some state-funded groups run out of money.

Regardless of how the standoff is resolved, it has laid bare the strains among California's elected Republicans as their most famous member cuts deals with the Democrats under the banner of postpartisanship.

"Arnold has made a mistake in that he hasn't been as inclusive of the Republican leadership as he might have been. There's a feeling going back to his first term that they are basically bystanders and not players in the legislative game," says Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center.

However, Dr. Cain and other observers doubt the wisdom of the Republican resisters, saying it's unlikely to improve their clout with the governor or voters' perceptions of the GOP.

A Field Poll released Saturday found that approval of state legislators dropped nine points since March to 33 percent, while Governor Schwarzenegger's approval rating remains high at 57 percent.

The Republican caucus says it hopes to gain $700 million in budget cuts and a change in how certain environmental regulations are interpreted by the state attorney general.

One leader of the revolt, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R), has argued that the budget isn't really balanced when it relies on money carried over from the previous year and makes dubious assumptions about growth. He's offered specific suggestions for places to cut.

While the governor says he will use a line-item veto for the $700 million in cuts, the Republican caucus isn't willing to take his word for it. "We're not going to settle for any parties involved in this saying 'trust me.' There's been a lot of agreements in the past that haven't been put in writing, and shame on us for that," says state Sen. Jeff Denham (R), who says he's referring to both the governor and Democratic lawmakers.

But many observers aren't buying the idea that this is primarily a battle over numbers. While budgets are often late in California, the fight has only gone on this long two other times in the past two decades, notes Jean Ross, director of the nonpartisan California Budget Project in Sacramento, Calif. In both those cases, the state's financial situation was far more severe, she says.

"It's hard not to believe there is a certain amount of looking for reasons to object to the budget," says Ms. Ross. "It's about internal dynamics among the Republicans."

Although Democrats have a majority in the senate, they do not have the two-thirds supermajority required in the legislature to pass a budget, giving the minority Republicans one piece of leverage.

Last week, the governor's patience apparently grew thin with the budget holdup after seemingly unable to peel off just one Republican vote needed.

He toured a medical clinic in Fresno that was struggling to provide care in the absence of state payments shut off by the lack of a budget. Across California, the impasse has halted more than $3 billion in state payments. The governor went on to say at a press conference that Senator Denham from nearby Modesto "should get a lot of heat."

"You don't ever expect to be called out by a member of your own party," says Denham. "I don't see this as postpartisanship. It's more partisan than ever: The governor has taken the Democrats' side." Denham says he's fighting back by taking his case to the Web.

A spokesperson for the governor said the comments were intended to highlight "the consequences to real people for not having a budget."

Schwarzenegger's trip represents an unfavorable wrinkle to an otherwise common dynamic in California politics, says longtime Republican strategist Dan Schnur. "When you have districts drawn to elect only the most liberal Democrats and only the most conservative Republicans, it's only natural that they'd have a disconnect with a more moderate governor of their own party," says Mr. Schnur.

"The biggest obstacle to postpartisanship is that most politicians in the capitol are partisan," he adds, "but getting elected statewide in California usually requires more of a centrist approach."

Once the budget impasse gets settled, Schnur says Schwarzenegger may need to turn his attention to issues where he can agree with the Republican caucus. "Healthcare [reform] becomes trickier just for that reason."

Another longtime Republican strategist argues the opposite. "What Arnold can do is cut a deal with the Democrats, get a majority vote deal, and bypass the Republicans. He was in the process of doing that anyway," says Tony Quinn. After this dust-up, "it's more likely he's just going to ignore them."

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