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Illinois Democrats divided on big issues as session’s end nears

Published: Saturday, May 25, 2013 11:33 p.m. CDT
(AP photo)
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks to lawmakers during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. With the super majorities they won last November, Democrats looked poised to rule almost unchallenged in the state capitol. But, with other divisions surfacing, it hasnít been that easy at all. As the clock ticks down toward the end of the session next week, Democrats are disagreeing among themselves on some of the biggest issues still on the table, including the nationís worth pension crisis, a difficult state budget, and decisions about gun possession, gay marriage, casinos and more.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Democrats seemed poised to rule almost unchallenged in the state Capitol after winning supermajorities in the House and Senate last fall. But as intraparty divisions have surfaced, things haven’t been that simple.

Heading into the final week of the legislative session, Democrats are split on some of the state’s biggest issues, from the nation’s worst pension crisis to the public possession of guns, gay marriage and gambling expansion. Lawmakers also have yet to get a deal on the state budget, the expansion of Medicaid or how to regulate a high-volume oil and gas drilling process known as “fracking.”

It’s a weighty agenda to wade through by Friday’s scheduled adjournment, even in a statehouse accustomed to leaving legislation to the last minute.

“It is unusual in the scope of what has to be done,” said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who’s working to pass a measure in the House to legalize same-sex marriage. “Those are each big things on any one day, much less all at one time.”

Democrats made historic gains in the November election, adding enough seats to their existing majorities to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in both chambers. They now hold majorities of 40-19 in the Senate and 71-47 in the House. It takes 30 votes to pass legislation in the Senate and 60 votes in the House.

Holding a majority hasn’t historically meant Democrats have been able to do whatever they like.

On issues such as guns, legislators tend to split more along geographic lines, with lawmakers from outside of Chicago siding more with Republicans. And this session there are several Democrats in each chamber whose districts flipped from the Republican column. Those lawmakers tend to vote more conservatively than legislators from longtime Democratic strongholds.

Given those realities, the Senate’s top Republican, Sen. Christine Radogno, said the Democrats’ divisions were “pretty predictable.”

“There’s a lot of diversity within their caucuses,” she said. “It’s not surprising they’re having troubles.”

Some of the strongest differences of opinion are between the state’s top Democrats – Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton – all of whom are from Chicago.

It’s most evident on the issues of guns and how to fix the state’s $97 billion pension shortfall.

The Senate approved pension legislation sponsored by Cullerton in March. Cullerton believes his plan is the only option that will survive a court challenge because it gives retirees and employees a choice in benefits. But Madigan gutted that legislation and replaced it with a bill he said would save more money by unilaterally cutting benefits, and the House voted to approve it.

Cullerton then sponsored a new, union-supported measure that maintained the choice of benefits.

That bill passed the Senate and went to the House, leaving the two chambers in a stalemate.

Quinn has indicated he prefers Madigan’s measure, but hasn’t said he wouldn’t support Cullerton’s plan. Cullerton said Friday he is going to continue working toward a compromise.

On guns, Madigan backed legislation approved by the House on Friday that drew sharp criticism from Quinn and Cullerton.

The measure – passed as a court-ordered June 9 deadline approaches – would allow the carrying of concealed guns. But it also would eliminate all local gun laws, including Chicago’s ban on assault-style weapons.

Cullerton called that an “overreach” and “offensive” and said Senate Democrats will discuss their own proposal on Monday.

Quinn issued his own terse statement.

“I will not support this bill and I will work with members of the Illinois Senate to stop it in its tracks,” he said.

If lawmakers don’t reach an agreement on pension or gun legislation – or any other matters they choose to continue pursuing – they could vote to extend the session. Quinn also could call legislators back to Springfield for a special session, as he did in an unsuccessful attempt to get a pension bill approved last year.

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