Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, say they have met once since the election of an evenly divided Senate to explore whether they can open the 2017 session in January without a rules fight.
In interviews Wednesday and Thursday, the two leaders said they have no deal on sharing power, just an agreement to keep talking in search of ways to minimize tensions as legislators attempt to close a projected shortfall of more than $1 billion with a divided Senate and a House hampered by the smallest working majority in its history.
Looney has the upper hand: The Connecticut Constitution designates Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, his Democratic ally, as the presiding officer of the Senate with the “right to debate, and when the Senate is equally divided, to give the casting vote.”
Democrats say Wyman’s ability to break a tie extends to any action taken by the Senate meeting as a body — “in committee of the whole,” as described by the Constitution. As the Senate adopts its rules and votes for president pro tem as a committee of the whole, that suggests the ability to break a tie for the re-election of Looney as the Senate’s top leader.
Fasano concedes nothing, but he also downplays the chances of a protracted fight over the election of a president pro tem — the leader with the sole authority to name the Senate co-chairs of the legislature’s joint committees.
“I think our position is the lieutenant governor does not cast the deciding vote on that issue,” Fasano said. “That all being said I think for the betterment of Connecticut and the benefit of going forward, we’re going to have to work together. So, at the end of the day, I’m not sure all this matters.”
In other words, they are trying to avoid a legal fight that could spill out of the chamber and across the street to the Supreme Court. An evenly divided Senate in Virginia produced litigation and rules changes that eventually allowed Democrats control of chairmanships and majorities on key committees.
A rumor Wednesday had Looney agreeing to split control of the committees, with Democratic co-chairs of some panels and Republican co-chairs of others.
“Absolutely not,” Looney said Wednesday night.
But an arrangement with a House Democratic co-chair and Senate Democratic and Republican co-chairs is a possibility, Looney said.
While Democrats believe they have the ability to dictate committee assignments and otherwise control the flow of business, Looney said they also take a longer view, knowing control of the chamber is not certain after the 2018 election, when legislators face re-election and there is expected to be an open race for governor and lieutenant governor.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he applauded Looney and Fasano for trying to avoid an opening-day fight.
“If there is a clash on day one, it’s going to last the whole session,” Winfield said. “If they are working together, thank you for doing that.”
More problematic is whether the Senate will have a majority leader, the legislator who controls the call of the calendar, working at the behest of the president pro tem. Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, is now the majority leader.
Before the current two-year term, the Senate rules empowered the president pro tem to appoint the majority leader. The current rules say, “The majority leader shall be appointed by the members of the majority party in the Senate.”