Illinois Senate President John Cullerton has received a lot of bad press, sharp condemnation from Republicans and even some quiet criticism from his own members over the past month.
But Cullerton made no apologies during an interview last week for the way his caucus sought to hold the state’s public works bill hostage by tacking on $430 million in additional budget items. The move was rejected by both parties in the House and by the Senate Republicans and even, in the end, by Gov. Pat Quinn, who had pushed for additional spending all year. The General Assembly had to return to town last week so the Senate could officially back down from the spending and send a “clean” bill to the governor’s desk.
The Senate president told me numerous times over the past several months that he believed he could convince fellow Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan to go along with his budget plans. In the end, however, Madigan stuck to a budget pact he’d made months earlier with House Republican Leader Tom Cross and beat back the Senate Democrats’ plan. So, what went wrong?
“I don’t think anything was a mistake,” Cullerton insisted. He blamed Cross for the collapse of his members’ spending plan. Cross, he said, couldn’t comprehend what the Senate Democrats were proposing: moving money away from some special state funds in order to pay for his caucus’ program spending demands. Cullerton claimed he first approached Cross about the idea three weeks before the end of the session. It wasn’t until the session’s end, he said, that Cross finally grasped the concept, but by then, Cullerton claimed, it was too late.
Several members of his own caucus have grumbled since May 31 about the way Cullerton seemed to give free rein to Black Caucus members and others who aggressively pushed for a showdown with Madigan over the budget and absolutely demanded the additional spending which caused all the trouble. At one point last month, many in that group wanted to force an overtime session rather than pass any budget bill.
Ironically enough, many of those same grumblers who said Cullerton needs to act more forcefully to quell the chaos within his caucus were also the most unhappy with the way former Senate President Emil Jones too often ran his show with a heavy hand. What seemed to irk them most, however, was that a minority of the caucus was able to once again force the majority into an untenable position.
To be fair, no caucus has experienced more internal revolts than the Senate Democrats over the past 40 years. It is, by far, the least “manageable” of the four legislative caucuses. And white legislators from the city and suburbs (in both chambers) always complain at the end of spring session that Downstaters, Latinos and African-Americans are being placated while they’re being left out.
The Senate president chose to look at the bright side.
“Rather than take us into overtime, I got the caucus to vote for the budget,” he pointed out. That was most certainly no mean feat considering the intensely heated opposition to the House’s budget within his own caucus. “My goal was to pass a budget, which we did.”
He also said he now has “leverage to renegotiate the budget in the middle of the fiscal year.” Why? Because, Cullerton said, the House’s budget is full of “phony” cuts. Indeed, the House put off well over a billion dollars in spending until after the end of the fiscal year.
Cullerton seems determined to undermine the legitimacy of that budget, and his focus appears to be on forcing Tom Cross to admit he made a mistake. It’s arguable, Cullerton said, that the Senate cut more than the House did. And the Republican Cross, he claimed “is unaware of how bad his budget is.”
“We’ll get our vindication, if you will, in January, when people realize that we have to cut the budget again,” Cullerton predicted.
As for the grumbling in his own caucus, Cullerton said that nobody has come to him with any of those concerns. “I’m not going to change my personality,” he said, adding “I don’t like to dictate to people.”
However, Cullerton also had a piece of advice for those in his caucus who are constantly clamoring for war with the House Speaker. “You do not win by fighting Mike Madigan.”
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.