BOISE - Forget FDR's "Happy Days are Here Again" and Bill Clinton's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."
Nearing the end of the best session in years for Idaho's legislative Democrats, their new anthem is Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
A center-right divide in the Idaho GOP has made minority votes pivotal on key issues, including the signature accomplishment for Republican Gov. Butch Otter, the state-run online insurance marketplace he signed into law Thursday.
"This is a 50-percent-plus-one business," said leading lobbyist Pat Sullivan, a former aide to iconic Republican U.S. Sen. Jim McClure. "Look at the health care vote: 12-vote margin. How many Democrats? Thirteen. On the health care exchange, the Democrats were on the side of business."
House Minority Leader John Rusche plotted a pragmatic strategy. He resisted a faction in his caucus that sought to trade votes on the health exchange for rejection of two bills hostile to the party's most important backer, the teachers union.
Rusche argues that his realism will bring dividends as Democrats work with the GOP's centrists, including 14 House freshmen who risked primary challenges for sidling up to Obamacare. "Those guys were pretty brave, stepping out in front of the TV cameras. It's not wise to cut their knees off," he said.
Added the Lewiston lawmaker, "I expect it to pay off with a health exchange that's a better deal; in relationships with the governor and with our compadres here in the Legislature; and in relationships and trust with the large number of supporters of the alliance" backing the exchange bill.
Democrats also made less flashy progress in budget-setting. Four Democrats were part of the governing majority on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
Among their accomplishments: $12 million more for higher education; additional seats for Idaho students at out-of-state medical schools; and more money for family practice and psychiatric residency programs.
Three of the four JFAC Democrats are new this year. The committee's co-chairs, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, praised the quartet. Bell called them "hard-working, thoughtful and gracious." Cameron said they were "absolutely fantastic."
"They certainly made the work easier," Bell said. "I have a lot of respect for their abilities and reasoning."
Both co-chairs had special praise for Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who took on the Health and Welfare budgets, including Medicaid, working in concert with freshman Republican Rep. Thyra Stevenson of Lewiston.
"Sen. Schmidt probably carried the most budget bills on the floor," Cameron said. "The minority has been relevant, approachable, willing to roll up their sleeves and work through tough issues."
Cameron, the Senate's senior member in his 23rd year, said 2013's Democrats understand they won't win zero-sum games.
"You're not going to hit the majority between the eyes and then expect them to vote for your amendment or your proposal," he said. "The way you get things done is by working behind the scenes and collaborating with members of the majority."
Said one of the Democrats on the appropriations panel, Sen. Roy Lacey of Pocatello: "In the past, Democrats on JFAC have always been, 'It's not enough, it's not enough, it's not enough.' You have to come back to reality and ask, 'Can we get this accomplished?' We've worked hard to show that we're players."
Alex LaBeau, president of the state's largest business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, notes a strategic shift.
"Democrats changed their approach," LaBeau said. "When you play the brinksmanship game, usually you end up with nothing."
Rusche said his party learned from 2009, when Democrats sought to exchange their votes on fuel tax increases sought by Otter for $1.3 million in additional money for K-12 schools.
"When it got out that the governor was even talking to us, they just kind of flipped on it," Rusche recalled. "We remembered that lesson. You try as hard as you can, but there are places people can't go."
Neither the fuel tax nor extra school money passed.
Otter's chief of staff, David Hensley, met with House Democrats a week before the health exchange vote. Hensley recalled his pitch: "We want your support based upon the merits of the bill itself. We're not going to horse trade."
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, had a similar message. "My words were, 'Support it or oppose it, I'm not going to deal.'"
Improving the brand
Rusche, as a member of Otter's working group that endorsed the exchange, said he was committed to vote for House Bill 248 no matter what. The vote was 41-29, but Bedke lost in his caucus, with Republicans opposed 29-28. All 13 Democrats backed Otter.
Republicans agreed to one small consideration, Rusche said: A seat on the exchange governing board for a Democrat. He also lobbied for late-session introduction of bills to expand Medicaid and cut property taxes for indigent health care. "It wasn't a quid pro quo, but we said that was really important to us," he said.
The Medicaid bills were printed March 15, two days after the exchange vote, in a panel led by a GOP backer of expansion, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona.
Since then, Rusche, Schmidt and Democratic Party Chairman Larry Kenck have hammered the GOP for saying the Legislature doesn't have time to consider bills bringing an estimated $478 million tax break, according to a state-commissioned study.
Rusche and Schmidt drew eight reporters to a news conference last week. "To offer improved health care to 100,000 Idahoans and to save the taxpayers of Idaho almost a half-billion dollars over the next 10 years, yeah, I think I can stay a day or two longer," Rusche deadpanned.
Kenck called on citizens to urge lawmakers to consider the bills this week, calling out GOP leaders for an unwillingness to stand up to the party's "'return to the gold standard' faction."
Rusche, however, rejected more aggressive tactics, such as delaying adjournment by forcing House and Senate clerks to read every bill out loud. "At this point in time, that would cement the opposition," Rusche said. "Next year's better than not at all."
'KILL THE HOSTAGE?'
Rep. Shirley Ringo of Moscow, the senior Democrat on JFAC, worked with GOP Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, on the K-12 budget. Thompson approached Ringo early in the session; the result was a bill that prompted Ringo to abandon her practice of submitting a Democratic budget.
Ringo feared that a "hard-core conservative element" would control JFAC if Democrats didn't deal with moderates. "It made me feel that perhaps I had to be part of a new coalition. I was concerned about damage control," she said.
Ringo tried to convince Democrats to play hardball on Otter's exchange. She urged bartering votes for a GOP promise to kill two bills hamstringing teachers' bargaining rights.
She and two other Democrats met with Otter Deputy Chief of Staff Roger Brown to test whether Otter would agree to veto bills limiting contract length and allowing school boards to impose their "last best offer."
"I didn't get a commitment," Ringo said.
In a closed-door caucus, Ringo pressed her case to hold out. Would Democrats sacrifice passage of the state exchange, an important aspect of President Barack Obama's legacy?
"How many are willing to kill the hostage?" was the question put to the 13.
"More hands went up than mine," Ringo said, adding that she had three solid allies and two or three shaky supporters. "But nobody really wanted to vote against it."
Rep. Phylis King of Boise, the fourth Democrat on JFAC, was among the wafflers. Said King: "I really wanted that exchange."
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who opposed Bedke and Otter on the exchange, said Democrats blinked.
"A hostage isn't a hostage unless you're willing to kill it," Moyle said. "Do I think they could have gotten more? Oh, yeah, it wouldn't have passed without them."
Ringo said she isn't critical of Rusche, but laments the squishiness of his claim of benefits down the road.
"I don't think we got much of anything," Ringo said. "We were in the rare position of having what the majority party wanted. I think we're not very good at this stuff. We're just not used to it."
WINNING THE MARGINS
In more pedestrian matters - the everyday drudgery of committee work - Democratic influence is on the rise because they decide the fate of bills when Republicans are closely divided.
Two examples are illustrative: the March 14 House Revenue & Taxation Committee vote to kill House Bill 267, which would establish a new highway financing scheme called Transportation and Economic Development Zones; and a March 21 House Business Committee vote on House Bill 289, the Idaho Free Market Health Insurance Act, touted as an exchange alternative.
In the first case, three Democrats sided with the GOP right wing to kill the bill, 9-6.
In the second, Democrats aligned with moderates. With the bill clearly in trouble, House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, tried to adjourn the committee to regroup.
Rusche outmaneuvered Crane, requesting a roll call. Democrats provided the margin to continue working, as well as on two subsequent votes that ultimately killed the bill and avoided what opponents said were conflicts with Otter's exchange bill.
"The Democrats are in play," said Sullivan, the Boise lobbyist who represents Blue Cross of Idaho, hospitals and a major drug maker. "I can tell you as a lobbyist I've opened up much more dialogue with Democrats than in years past."
Rusche, whose party holds 20 of 105 seats, says his long-term goal is to win over enough voters to capture a third of the Legislature.
The story of the 2013 session, Rusche said, is of a party taken seriously by the business interests that heavily influence which candidates win elections.
"Not only do they need to deal with us, but to get the best results for Idaho communities and the future of Idaho families and businesses, they should really look to the Democrats," he said.