Why Hold a Hearing on a Doomed Bill? The Story of a Caucus that Promised Bipartisanship

On Monday, the Senate Health Care Committee held a hearing on a wildly-discussed bill that would require insurance companies to cover abortion. Almost immediately afterward, Committee Chair Randi Backer, a Republican from Eatonville, announced that the bill would go no further.

So why hold the hearing at all? Why bring hundreds of people, with their buttons and ribbons, to Olympia for a measure that had absolutely no chance of passing?

The reason can be found in the highly unusual dynamic at play in the Senate this session, a subject we explore in this week’s cover story. In January, Democrats Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon joined with Republicans to take control of the chamber. Their new “majority coalition caucus” consisted of 23 Republicans and just two Democrats but Tom and Sheldon insisted that it would be bipartisan.

When I interviewed Tom in mid-February, he expanded on the theme, talking about how the coalition he was leading was creating a new “culture of acceptance” that stresses “open debate.” Yet even that day, his narrative was being tested. The Senate had held a hearing on a bill that came from the anti-abortion camp, one that would require parents to be notified if their underage daughters planned an abortion. But the bill requiring abortion insurance coverage—a measure that Tom himself agreed to co-sponsor—was getting the shaft from a series of committee chairs, each of whom refused to give it a hearing.

Tom told me he had “literally spent an hour-and-a-half” that day trying to drum up a hearing. Asked if he had made any progress, he said: “We’re still working on that.” But he promised that even if he couldn’t get the bill heard in the coming weeks, the Senate would eventually hear a House version of the legislation that was bound to come over.

To maintain his credibility, he had to make good on that promise, which explains Monday’s hearing. But obviously his influence only goes so far in a caucus overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans. It does not extend to giving an abortion-rights bill an actual chance of passing.

The abortion flap has been far from the only dissonant note in the bipartisan storyline. Democrats have complained bitterly about the way they feel their issues are being dismissed. Yet to understand why Tom and Sheldon have broken ranks with their party, you have to understand the way some Democrats feel the party has dismissed their issues—and their districts. For more, please read “Sleeping with the Elephants.”

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