The Phantom Menace

Thanks to legislative leadership, the Moderate Caucus does not exist. But moderates still hold the key to passing, or killing, legislation in the Senate.

Although Democrats enjoy a near veto-proof majority in the upper house, a relatively small group of members still have the ability to alter the fate of a piece of legislation. On the Senate floor, the defection of five Democrats from the party line can kill a bill. And on some key Senate committees, such as Health or Appropriations, it can be as few as two.

Part of this may be by design. In March, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata changed the locks on the offices of three Senate Democrats for attending a Moderate Caucus fundraiser in March. But he didn’t remove those members from key committees. In fact, Perata is the architect of those the Senate committees. And on many of those panels, the number of moderate Democrats and Republicans, when taken together, comprise a majority.

Senate Health, for example, is chaired by the liberal Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica. The 11-member panel has just four Republicans. But if the GOP members form an alliance with Senators Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, they form a majority of the committee.

That was precisely the majority that coalesced to kill a tobacco-related bill by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro. Corbett’s SB 950 would have required tobacco manufacturers to report nicotine levels and other ingredients in tobacco products to the Department of Public Health for public release. The bill received just five votes, with Yee and McLeod voting against the bill. Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, abstained.

Senate Appropriations has 17 members. But among them are seven Republicans and some of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats. Sens. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana and Yee all sit on the committee, and if any two of those members side with a Republican bloc, they can prevent a measure from clearing the committee.

Moderates also have leverage on the Senate floor–leverage that is likely to manifest as more legislation moves through the committee process. Last month, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, passed a bill off the Senate floor restricting various types of toxic packing materials. But the measure passed out with the bare minimum 21 votes, and only after a Republican, Maldonado, cast the deciding vote. Sens. Calderon, Correa and Dean Florez, D-Shafter, voted against the bill. Democrats Mike Machado and Ed Vincent did not vote on the measure.

That is just part of the new political reality, says Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California. “The speaker pro tem’s job this year is challenging because more moderate members of the Assembly have moved into the Senate,” says Jacobson. “It used to be that the Senate was a friendlier body in terms of being able to move environmental bills through. This year, they’ve evened out. I wouldn’t say the Assembly is easy now by any stretch but the Senate’s a little tougher than it has been in the past.”

In Senate Governmental Organization last month, Negrete Mcleod, Yee and Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, helped kill a measure by Sen. Tom Torlakson that would have vending machines on state property meet new minimum standards for offering healthy food and beverages.

Publicly, Perata has tried to keep the mods’ influence in check, even resorting to changing the locks on three senators’ doors earlier this year. Perata said the lockout was not to prevent members from voting their conscience; he just wanted to send a message to all members that “vote-bloc caucuses” in the Senate would not be permitted.

Changing the locks on the doors of Senators Negrete McLeod, Calderon and Correa seems to have stopped a formal moderate caucus from coalescing the way it had in the Assembly under the leadership of Joe Canciamilla. In 2004, the Assembly Mod Squad prepared their own bill analyses and created sheets on how members should vote, often against the wishes of the speaker.

Many of those moderate members left the Assembly in 2006 and were replaced by more liberal Democrats. But some of those moderates graduated to the Senate, and altered the ideological makeup of that house this year.

In the Senate this year, while there may be no formal moderate caucus, there is a fluid coalition of likeminded members who, on any given issue, can join with Republicans to form a voting block to kill or pass specific bills.

Though much of this will likely materialize as the legislative session progresses, particularly as Assembly bills move to the Senate, Democratic centrists in the Senate already have made their presence felt.

Part of the problem in pigeonholing a “mod caucus” is answering the question, “What makes a mod?” It’s not an easy question to answer. And there is no hard-and-fast coalition of members that makes up the Senate Democrats’ moderate core. The alliances form on individual policy issues and specific pieces of legislation.

Depending on the issue, a number of members may be viewed as moderate. Senator Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, has been out of sync with progressives on some issues throughout her legislative career.

The Central Valley roots and constituencies of Mike Machado and Florez make them, in the words of one Democratic staffer, “always on my call list when I’m lining up votes on a tough bill.”

Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, herself a former Republican, often sided with Democrats as chairwoman of Senate Public Safety last session.

Freshman Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, was tagged as a moderate during his campaign, primarily for his relationship with the business and development interests of downtown Los Angeles during his time on the City Council. But on state issues, so far, he has proved to be a reliable vote for the caucus’s more progressive wing.

In fact, Padilla is authoring a bill that is opposed by some more business-friendly members of his own caucus–a bill that could provide an early key test of moderates’ influence on the Senate floor.

The bill, SB 120, would require chain restaurants to post levels of calories, trans fats, carbohydrates, saturated fats and sodium in their food.

The bill barely cleared the Senate Health Committee, with three Republicans voting no and Negrete McLeod joining Republican Maldonado in abstaining on the bill. The bill received the needed sixth vote after Padilla’s intense lobbying of Yee, who is considered a more business-friendly vote than many in his caucus.

It’s unclear when Padilla will take up his measure on the Senate floor. The bill was eligible to be heard as early as Monday, but the author’s office did not feel confident it had solidified the votes needed to take up the measure.

Negrete McLeod and Correa have indicated they will not support the bill, and Sens. Calderon and Ducheny have expressed concerns about the bill to the author.
That would leave the bare minimum of 21 votes remaining in the Democratic caucus for Padilla to secure passage of his bill. That means every vote must be solid, and that attendance among Senate Democrats must be perfect.

Sen. Ed Vincent, D-Inglewood, has missed large parts of the legislative session due to illness, and his presence, along with that of his colleagues, will become more important as key points in the legislative calendar approach. And Sen. Jenny Oropeza’s congressional campaign could further complicate matters in the Senate.

Senate leader
ship sources dismiss the notion of a Senate in which moderates hold the key. They say the makeup of the Senate simply requires members to work harder at lobbying members to support their legislation. That, they say, simply comes with the job of legislating.

Contact Anthony York at

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