Two months into a record-breaking overtime legislative session, the four state legislative leaders met last week to talk about the budget, but for the first time ever they made a point not to invite Governor Rod Blagojevich.
Senate President Emi Jones and House Speaker Michael Madigan, as well as high-level members of the other two legislative caucuses, all described the talks as generally positive.
The governor's people also described the meeting as a positive event. Jones sat down with the governor later to brief him about the meeting. The governor's people say that Blagojevich also outlined where he wanted the budget talks to go. The governor's office insisted that the two men are still on the same page. Blagojevich and Jones have been practically welded at the hip all year, so attending a budget negotiation without Blagojevich was seen as a major step by the Senate president, which is why the governor's office was quick to claim everything was still fine between the two men.
The idea behind the meeting sans governor was that Blagojevich isn't much of a negotiator. Instead of trying to find mutual solutions, the governor tends to give canned speeches over and over again and endlessly repeats his talking points, particularly about his demand for his health-insurance plan for the uninsured. He's also quite abrasive and confrontational during the negotiating sessions, particularly with Madigan and Senate GOP Leader Frank Watson.
In other words, he was more of a hindrance than a help when it came time to negotiate the budget. On Friday, Blagojevich brought Senator Watson into his office to discuss "building a relationship," according to WLS Radio reporter Ryan Hermes. If he had done that sort of thing six months ago, the governor might not have had so many problems this year.
Blagojevich tried for weeks to pass his health-insurance bill out of the Senate to gain some leverage against Madigan. The powerful Democratic speaker has feuded openly with the governor for more than a year, and he had remained mum about whether he would allow the health-insurance legislation to proceed if the Senate passed it. Just to make sure, Madigan worked behind the scenes to stall the bill in the Senate. The governor wanted to muscle the insurance bill out and force Madigan to accept it, and thereby "prove" his Democratic Party bona fides, or reject it, and confirm Blagojevich's often-repeated claim that the speaker and Democratic Party of Illinois chair is in reality a "right-wing Republican."
But, for various reasons - including the governor's incompetence, arrogance, and intractability and the failure of Jones to unite his huge Democratic majority this year on just about anything - the Senate has been unable to pass the governor's health-insurance legislation. That failure very likely contributed to Jones' realization that the only way out of this overtime-session mess was to talk things over with the other legislative leaders and leave Blagojevich out of it.
Senator Jones is a strong, practical negotiator, so by taking the negotiating reins from Blagojevich and continuing his arduous and difficult shuttle diplomacy between the other leaders and the governor, he could wind up the hero. If Madigan forces Blagojevich to cry "uncle," he'll consider that a win for himself.
Blagojevich has had to bow to Jones repeatedly this year, mainly because he had no other choice. The governor has tied himself and his legislative hopes so closely to the Senate leader that he's had to try to keep Jones as happy as possible, or risk complete irrelevance. Blagojevich guessed, wrongly, that Jones' veto-proof majority would mean easy wins in the Senate for his legislative agenda. But if Jones walked away, Blagojevich would be alone.
Nobody else with power at the Statehouse trusts Blagojevich or particularly cares to do business with him. The man has made more (and stronger) political enemies than any governor I've covered in 17 years. Jones is all Blagojevich has left.
Senator Jones might be the only person in the world who can help Blagojevich save a little face. As I write this, everybody in Springfield who has been dragged along on this farce is keeping their fingers crossed that Jones will succeed and let us go on with our lives.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and (http://www.thecapitolfaxblog.com).