Political infighting splits state's delegation in D.C.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
Back in the 1970s, the entire Washington state congressional delegation periodically met in Sen. Warren "Maggie" Magnuson's office to shape legislation favorable to folks back home.
These days, the 11 members of Congress from Washington are unable to come together even on issues they all agree upon. Partisan sniping has made relationships much frostier than the cordially competitive days of Maggie and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson.
Most of the recent acrimony has been generated by the election contest between Republican Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, but fissures in the delegation were emerging long before Nethercutt decided to run for Murray's seat.
One result: The state's lawmakers have not gathered as a group this year, suspending their monthly breakfast meetings.
"Washington state has always had a tradition of working together for the greater good," said a Washington, D.C., lobbyist with Washington state clients. "That's definitely eroding. And it makes everything harder for everybody."
Other state delegations also are fractured along party lines, he said, but such tensions are new to Washington state.
Last week, an issue that enjoys bipartisan support — changing U.S. tax law to allow Washington residents to deduct their state sales tax — brought out the latest round of bitterness.
Four days after formally kicking off his campaign May 14, Nethercutt announced he had secured a promise from House GOP leaders to include a $4 billion, three-year sales-tax deduction in a larger tax bill.
The measure would help residents of Washington and six other states that levy a sales tax but not an income tax. It would let them estimate their yearly sales taxes and lower their tax liability.
The timing of the sales-tax announcement had nothing to do with his Senate campaign, Nethercutt said.
Though the issue has been around since 1986 — when the IRS code was changed to eliminate the sales-tax deduction — Nethercutt said it was his work in recent weeks that broke the legislative logjam.
He gave no credit to Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, who has made the sales-tax deduction a signature issue in recent years.
"I know Baird and whoever has been trying for a long time to get this passed, but we used the timing and strategy we needed to get this job done," Nethercutt said.
After Nethercutt's announcement, the state's eight Democrats in Congress, including Murray, wrote a letter to a Republican committee chairman supporting the idea, without naming Nethercutt.
'Cheeky as all get-out'
If the House passes a bill making the sales tax deductible, the measure would still have to pass the Senate, where its prospects are unclear.
Baird said he started working on sales-tax deductibility four years ago. He and Nethercutt are two of the 78 co-sponsors on the Sales Tax Equity Act, which hadn't been getting a lot of attention until now. Baird has held numerous news conferences on the issue in recent years.
While Baird said he is thankful the proposal is now a little closer to reality, he also said Nethercutt could have informed him when things started to move.
"Washington has, or should I say had, a long tradition of people on both sides all working together and sharing credit," Baird said. "George taking credit for something he hasn't had any part in is dishonest. It's cheeky as all get-out."
Wild Sky legislation
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, also is unhappy with Nethercutt, over an issue that hits closer to his district.
Since 2001, Larsen and Murray have been working on a bill to provide permanent wilderness protection of a 106,000-acre swath of Snohomish County called Wild Sky. Nethercutt was not involved.
On May 14, the day of his campaign kickoff, Nethercutt announced he was drafting his own Wild Sky bill.
"Most people don't think there's any chance in the world that (Larsen's) bill will get through the House Resources Committee," Nethercutt said. "I believe I can get a version through the committee that is as good, if not better."
Before the announcement, Larsen said he had heard rumors that Nethercutt was planning something on Wild Sky but had kept his plans to himself, even though the proposed wilderness is entirely in Larsen's district.
Yesterday, Larsen sent a letter to the House Resources Committee stating that his original proposal had bipartisan support and should be passed without Nethercutt's proposed modifications.
"My frustration is taking somebody's idea and not working within the delegation. That's not in the tradition of U.S. senators from Washington," Larsen said. "If this is the way George will act as U.S. senator, I'll be careful about how much I will work with him."
Nethercutt said complaints about his legislative style are politically motivated.
"That's pure politics," he said.
A more partisan Congress
The disputes within the delegation mirror tensions in Congress.
Democrats claim that, as the minority in both houses of Congress, they are excluded. Republicans say Democrats are obstructing the GOP agenda. People don't talk much anymore about finding middle ground.
Tensions among the state's eight Democrats and three Republicans have been worsened by sharp policy disagreements.
Last year, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, clashed over federal funding of Sound Transit's light-rail system. After a protracted fight, the Federal Transit Administration awarded Sound Transit $500 million in October, handing a victory to Dicks.
At the time, Dicks called the Sound Transit fight "unprecedented in my 35 years here, this kind of fight in the delegation. I never expected this in a million years."
Even the name-calling has reached new lows.
"It's come to this," Larsen lamented. "We're using the word 'cheeky.' "
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or email@example.com
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