N.Y. Senate At Standstill Over Defection Drama

Two days after a pair of Senate Democrats defected to the GOP, New York's Capitol is in chaos as party leaders argue over who is in control. The latest act in the political drama has the state legislature at a standstill.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

New Yorkers have a pretty high bar when it comes to political intrigue, but the state's senators have been delivering plenty this week. On Monday, two Democrats surprised their colleagues by defecting to the Republicans - a legislative coup ensued. The Republicans claimed they've seized control of the Senate, while the Democrats deny that they've been demoted to minority status. So far the Republicans have been unable to get the Senate back to business.

NPR's Robert Smith has found himself in a gaggle of reporters outside the Senate chambers. Robert, bring us up to date; the Democrats had locked the doors, are they still locked?

ROBERT SMITH: They are still locked. We waited for two hours as the Republicans said that they had found a key, they were going to open these locked doors and hold a session, and they never did. So we're still at this standoff, really, with both the Republicans and the Democrats claiming they're in control. And it's been this way since Monday, when the Republicans sort of launched this surprise attack, if you will, bringing over those two Democrats over to their side, saying that they were going to hold a vote on leadership.

And the Democrats quickly tried to adjourn the session. They turned out the lights. They turned off the TV feed that feeds the Senate feed. And then they said, we're still in charge. We adjourned. We didn't take a vote. So, that's where it stands now.

BLOCK: Now, Republicans, we should explain, have had control of the Senate in New York for decades. It's only recently the Democrats got the leadership role. What can Democrats do to keep Republicans from taking over operation of the New York Senate once again?

SMITH: And remember, it was a very shaky control. It was the only two state senators made the difference and kept the Democrats in control over these last five months. Basically right now the Democrats are stalling, because they know that the Republicans have a majority of votes. And they're trying to lure at least one of these state senators back across the line. And one of them, Hiram Monserrate, this afternoon has been moving back and forth between the two camps: Democrats and Republicans - we assume, trying to look for the best deal.

BLOCK: And what is behind this legislative coup, Robert, what are the issues here?

SMITH: Well, officially, the two Democrats who jumped over to the other side said that they felt that the Democrats, their party, were not supporting enough reforms in Albany. And you got to remember, these two guys are not exactly ethical supermen themselves. They are Pedro Espada from the Bronx, and he's under investigation for using a non-profit to funnel illegal campaign contributions. And there's Hiram Monserrate from Queens. He's been indicted on charges of slashing his girlfriend. So these guys didn't have a big future in New York politics. And some assume that they're looking for at least a little bit of power in a new regime in the state Senate.

BLOCK: And there's sort of a kingmaker behind all of this and that's Tom Golisano, the billionaire from upstate New York.

SMITH: Well, that's the crazy thing is that there's this billionaire who's out there who supported the Democrats, got them into power, then he said that the income taxes were too high. He moved to Florida and said, I'm done with New York. And then apparently, put together this coup saying that he would, in fact, support the Republicans and support them because he feels that they're better able to make reforms. But of course, no one can get into the Senate right now to do anything.

BLOCK: Well, the legislative session is supposed to be winding down right around now in New York. What would the senators be voting on if they were in session?

SMITH: Well, a lot of things that people care about, real estate tax rebates, rent control and, sort of, most importantly, there is a gay marriage bill that has passed the assembly. It's in the state Senate. It's being held up in the state Senate. And, of course, the Republicans, most of them here do not support gay marriage. But interestingly enough, some supporters of gay marriage say that perhaps in all this chaos that bill could actually get to the floor under the Republicans. And that perhaps they have the votes to pass it. So, nobody knows quite what's going to happen.

BLOCK: And Robert, what's the scene like up there in Albany today?

SMITH: It is absolute chaos. I'll put it this way, there's someone dressed in a clown suit following these guys around, because they say it's that much of a circus.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Robert Smith covering the standoff outside the New York Senate in Albany, New York.

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