Egos are clashing in the Capitol during this final week of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's bill-signing period.
The Republican governor has signed only three of the 706 bills that lawmakers sent him last month as he still demands a water deal from the Legislature. After a "Big Five" meeting today, leaders said they now see Friday as the latest deadline to reach a water accord, and it is likely that Schwarzenegger will wait until this weekend to act on the remaining bills.
The governor is trying to use what leverage he has -- his signature -- as a means to keep water talks alive.
"We'll consider all the bills on their merits, but right now we're focused on pushing the Legislature toward an agreement on water," said Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear.
"Merit" is a vague enough word that could still translate into a blanket veto. Schwarzenegger set precedent last year by rejecting 35 percent of the bills on his desk and using a boilerplate message for 136 of his 415 vetoes blaming the state's budget delay rather than any specifics of the proposals. In September, the governor vetoed a bill and threatened to do the same to 72 others in an attempt to force lawmakers to act on prisons, renewable energy and water.
Majority Democrats in both houses, who have authored most of the bills on Schwarzenegger's desk, are grumbling over the governor's tactics. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, acknowledged today that Schwarzenegger previously broached the idea of having the Legislature again withdraw its bills until a water deal is reached. But the governor has not made a direct request, and Steinberg dismissed the idea as a nonstarter and "silly."
In the Assembly, Democrats are employing tactics that seem designed to pressure the governor into signing bills. Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, sent a letter to Attorney General Jerry Brown asking him to investigate whether the governor's strategy is illegal. He cited a part of the state constitution that says it is a felony to seek to influence a legislative vote by means of "bribery, promise of reward, intimidation or other dishonest means."
"While politicians are certainly allowed to express their disagreements in any way they find productive, they are not allowed to refuse to perform their sworn duties in order to force the legislature to accept policy positions," Torrico wrote. "And public officials are specifically prohibited from the kind of direct 'horse trading' in which a government official agrees to take, or not take, a certain action in exchange for a specific vote."
Assembly sources said some Assembly Democrats even suggested on a conference call last week that the lower house should impeach the governor if he imposes a mass veto. The constitution says the Assembly has the "sole power of impeachment" and that it can pursue it on a majority vote for unspecified "misconduct in office." The Senate would then conduct a trial.
The idea seems to crop up every time lawmakers are frustrated with the governor, said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. It appears to be mostly talk for now.
"I know some members have mentioned the possibility of impeaching the governor," Torrico said, adding, "There's certainly a growing number of members who consider the governor's extortion tactics to be illegal and a dereliction of duty. But (impeachment) has not been discussed formally in the caucus as an option."
In a non-response response, McLear said, "We're not responding to rumors or political hype. We're focused on pushing the Legislature to close on water."
Meanwhile, an ongoing clash between Steinberg and Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth continued in today's "Big Five" meeting. Hollingsworth previously accused Steinberg of reneging on a deal to kill a free tax preparation program, tweak a tax change for businesses and make a GOP senator the lead author on a homebuyers' bill. Steinberg has contended he never committed to making those changes.
Tensions between the two leaders erupted again today, and Steinberg left the meeting early, sources said. They will return Wednesday to resume talks.