After two tumultuous, highly partisan years that saw control of New York's Senate flip back to Republicans, senators are fighting now over whether a lieutenant governor can break tie votes and, in one heated debate, where they can sit.
Republicans have proposed a change to Senate rules that would prevent Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy from exercising what has long been assumed to be his constitutional power to break ties in procedural matters, which could include casting the deciding vote to pick a Democrat as Senate president. The GOP has have a 32-30 majority and 32 votes are needed to pass bills.
The battle resumes Monday, when the full Senate could vote on the rule change, and Democrats said Thursday that if they lose, they are prepared for a legal challenge.
"In a brazen power grab, Senate Republicans are attempting to tear down the constitutional authority of Lt. Gov. Duffy," said Austin Shafran, spokesman for the Senate's Democratic majority.
Shafran on Thursday accused the Republican majority — dominated by upstate and Long Island members — of trying to undercut "upstate's highest ranking elected official." Duffy was mayor of Rochester before running for lieutenant governor last year.
Shafran said the Democrats' lawyers are considering "all possible courses of action" to fight the rule change. The Democratic minority is dominated by New York City senators.
Republicans insist the rules will make sure senators, not a Democratic lieutenant governor, break ties on matters such as who will control the Senate.
"The changes we have proposed will help ensure the orderly operation of the Senate and its standing committees," said Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
Republicans first presented their proposed rule change involving the lieutenant governor in a committee meeting this week. Democrats said the effort to circumvent at least the spirit of the state constitution came with just an hour's notice.
Republicans, however, were unable to quickly pass the bill in the Rules Committee because one member was missing; the committee planned to revisit the bill on Monday, when it could vote to send it to the full Senate.
The issue erupted during a week that included an angry debate after Republicans switched the seating of some Democrats. The GOP granted a request by four Democrats who broke from the Democratic conference and wanted to sit together, displacing some Democrats in the conference now weakened by their new "independent Democratic" caucus.
Democratic Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn suggested the seat switching might be discrimination. He asked if the Democrats were moved because one is black and the other is a white woman.
"I consider that an insult, and not the conduct and the behavior that any one of us should have toward each other," Republican Sen. Thomas Libous of Broome County responded to Adams in Monday's floor debate.
The four dissident Democrats are white; one is a woman. Although three of them are among the party's most senior members, the Democratic minority denied them committee assignments.
But this week the Republican majority dished out not just committee assignments to the dissidents, but also lucrative chairmanships. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat, was named to head the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, will be chairwoman of the Committee on Children and Families and Democrat Sen. David Valesky of Oneida was named chairman of the Committee on Aging.
Freshman Democratic Sen. David Carlucci of Rockland County, the fourth member of the independent caucus, was named co-chairman of a joint legislative commission that regulates rules and regulations for state entities.
The new Senate fights came a week before Gov. Andrew Cuomo is to present a painful budget to address $10 billion in deficits. It could include thousands of state worker layoffs, service cutbacks and drastically reduced funding to schools and hospitals.