Dems, GOP reach accord on Senate presidency Bennett and Codey will split position during course of term

Staff Writer


Dems, GOP reach accord on Senate presidency
Bennett and Codey
will split position
during course of term

John O. Bennett IIIJohn O. Bennett III

The two incoming state Senate presidents have agreed on a method of dividing up the leadership responsibilities when the new Legislature is sworn in to office in January, with a plan on how to post bills that Senate Majority Leader John O. Bennett III (R-Monmouth) calls "a large exception" and Senate Minority Leader Richard Codey (D-Essex) calls "the most important one."

The two party leaders will be put on an even footing when the new Senate is sworn in on Jan. 8 and the membership becomes split 20-20 politically. No longer will one be the majority leader and the other the minority leader.

Bennett and Codey said they will both be sworn in as Senate presidents and will take turns serving as "presiding" president, with the line of succession to the governor although they haven’t finalized the length of time for each stint. It could be for one month or two, or divided by the number of sessions.

Similarly, they said, the committees will have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, with two co-chairs for each committee — one a Republican and one a Democrat — who would alternate. How the bills to be considered at committee meetings are selected still remains to be decided.

Bennett said he believes the co-Senate presidents should sit down together before each session to decide on which bills will be posted for a vote.

"I feel very strongly that this is going to lead to a house where Republicans are not controlling, and the Democrats are not controlling, but the people are controlling," he said. "That’s a very powerful thing."

Codey said he’s rejected that idea. He said he wants each of them to put up 50 percent of the bills that will be posted for every Senate session.

"He wants a veto power — I call it a blackball — and unless he and I agree, nothing gets posted," Codey said of Bennett’s position. "If we don’t resolve this, I guess we won’t be meeting. We won’t have any rules to work under."

Codey said there’s no "wiggle room" with him on how he stands.

"I don’t know how much ‘wiggle’ John has," he added.

Bennett is just as adamantly against Codey’s proposal for posting bills.

"I believe that encourages partisanship, and I believe we ought to get beyond that in a tied house and work out those differences so we can have legislation from both sides," he said.

"You still need a member of the other party to get your bill through," Bennett pointed out. "That invites a situation where to get John Bennett to vote for a bill, someone may sweeten it for John Bennett so he would vote for it by putting an extra $75,000 into it for Red Bank. That invites … more special legislation.

"In my scenario," he continued, "for a bill to get to us, it has to come out of a committee with bipartisanship because the committees are even. So we wouldn’t be looking at bills because they are Republican or Democratic, but because the bills are in the best interest of the people."

Bennett, however, was hopeful that agreement can be reached on posting bills.

"We’ve worked everything else out, so I think we’ll work this out too," he said.

Bennett, who lives in Little Silver, and Codey have agreed to split the acting governorship down the middle during the seven days between the swearing in of the Senate on Jan. 8 and the inauguration of Democrat Jim McGreevey as governor on Jan. 15, with each holding the post for three and a half days.

Bennett, the Republican, said he is taking the first three and a half days, making a smooth transition from acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, a Republican, after DiFrancesco gives up his Senate seat. Bennett will then step down from the "presiding" Senate president role and let Codey, the Democrat, assume that position for the next three and a half days so that he can make the smooth transition to the incoming Democratic governor.

"I get three work days, and he gets the weekend. He gets to play and I get to work," Bennett said with a laugh.

When the governor goes out of state, whoever is the "presiding" Senate president will serve as the acting governor, the two legislators said.

Bennett and Codey also have reached agreement on what offices they will occupy.

Bennett said he will stay where he is, in the Senate majority leader’s office, for the first year of their two-year Senate terms, and allow Codey, who has a basement office in the Statehouse as minority leader, to move into the much larger and more plush Senate president’s office, which has a bathroom and a shower. They will then switch offices for the second year of their terms.

Bennett said he saw no reason to move out of his present office, which has a bathroom but no shower, only to have to move back into the same office in a year.

"I don’t go to Trenton to shower," Bennett said.

Codey said they were close to agreement on the number of committees, staff issues and other matters.

"We’re both in the ballpark and getting nearer to home plate on the other issues," he said.

Bennett said working out when each would serve as acting governor and which office each will occupy, along with some other details, was easy.

"That’s not important," he said. "They are personal things, and personal things are not important to Sen. Codey or myself. We have both been there long enough to recognize what’s important and what is just an extra, and neither of us is basing our decisions on something that would be perceived to be an extra. People thought some of the silliest things were going to be the biggest things."

Bennett said he and Codey have met formally only four or five times since the November election while trying to work out procedures for the new Senate when it’s knotted at 20-20, but they talk on the telephone every day.

"I’m pleased we’ve made as much progress as we have," he said.

Codey said their discussions have been amicable.

"Nobody’s raised their voice. No body’s walked out," he said.

Bennett observed that two other states recently have faced a similar problem with tied houses. He said that the approach he wants to take on posting bills is patterned after what the state of Washington did in its Assembly, which took a lot of work but succeeded. Bennett said Maine, which had a tied Senate, chose to split the posting of bills the way Codey has proposed, which also worked.

Codey was just grateful to be in a position to discuss the sharing of power.

"We’ve been in the minority for 10 years, so anything more than that is good," he said. "Anything is a move up."