Talks stall, then resume over how to run a divided CT Senate

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, left, and Republican Leader Len Fasano in a file photo from the 2016 session.

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Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, left, and Republican Leader Len Fasano in a file photo from the 2016 session.

Negotiations over how to share power in an evenly divided Connecticut Senate progressed over the weekend before being suspended Monday as Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, broke away to prepare for a kidney transplant Tuesday at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“We had some exchanges over the weekend and talked again today, so I’m not sure the talks have stalled,” Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said Monday night. “Marty’s got a lot on his mind right now, and I get that.”

The 2017 session opens Jan. 4 with votes to resolve two crucial questions: Will Looney be re-elected as president pro tem, a position that traditionally carries the authority to name committee co-chairs and control the agenda? Will the rules be amended to give the GOP a greater say in what bills are debated?

Republicans seem ready to accept the former in exchange for the latter.

“All we’re fighting for is a right to have our ideas heard, our ideas voted on, our ideas brought to the table,” Fasano said. “And that’s what this is about.”

Democrats insist that Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman’s constitutional authority to break tie votes in the Senate extends to an opening day vote for leader. Republicans say if Democrats do not agree to some degree of power sharing they would go to court to challenge Wyman’s ability to break a tie vote in Looney’s favor.

“I think that our research shows that’s a very close call,” Fasano said.

While Democrats worry that the 68-year-old Looney might be medically unavailable when the session convenes barely two weeks after his surgery, Republicans have their own reason to fear being shorthanded: It is possible one of their senators will resign to become state auditor.

Fasano said one of the candidates he and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, have interviewed for state auditor is a member of the Senate Republican caucus, whom he did not identify. The bipartisan state auditors’ office is overseen by a Republican and Democrat chosen by the legislature. The GOP spot has been open since the retirement in October of Robert M. Ward, a former House Republican leader.

State law bars legislators from accepting another job in state government during their term, so a senator chosen for the auditor’s post would have to resign before the start of the new session.

At a time of year when legislators usually get committee assignments, a crucial bit of intel that can signal what proposals are possible or pointless in the session that begins soon after New Year’s Day, the State Capitol has been oddly becalmed.

Reporters, lobbyists and others who make a living observing and influencing the General Assembly greet each other these days with variations of the same plaintive question: “Is there a deal?”

The Nov. 8 election left Democrats with a fragile majority in the House and an even split in the Senate: 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans.

House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, is the Democrats choice to succeed J. Brendan Sharkey as speaker on opening day, with Rep. Matthew Ritter of Hartford already winning the endorsement of Democrats to succeed Aresimowicz as majority leader.

But Aresimowicz and Ritter are waiting to name committee co-chairs and members until the Senate resolves how the Senate will operate — and whether some legislative committees will be merged or eliminated. All committees of the General Assembly are joint committees, with House and Senate co-chairs.

Talks by Senate Democrats and Republicans appeared deadlocked Thursday, then resumed Friday and continued through Monday. One Democratic source who declined to be named agreed Monday night with Fasano’s assessment that negotiations were close to producing a deal on how the Senate would run.

With Looney’s surgery, it is difficult to see how a deal could be reached until after Christmas.

Looney’s kidney damage was a consequence of anti-inflammatory drugs he has taken since he was a teenager for ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis in his neck and spine. His church first publicized his need for a kidney in August.

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