While Republican leaders in the California Capitol officially are responding in serious tones to an incident in which several Assembly Democrats were unknowingly caught on tape talking about prolonging the state’s budget crisis for political gain, others in the GOP are happy, in the words of one legislative staffer, to “sit back and watch [the opposition party] blow up.”

As WorldNetDaily reported, 11 Assembly Democrats, unaware that a live microphone was broadcasting their words around the Capitol, met behind closed doors Monday to debate the merits of purposely extending California’s budget crisis.

Members of the Democratic Study Group were unaware that a microphone in the committee room was on as they discussed slowing progress in an attempt to increase pressure on Republicans to accept tax increases as part of a deal to resolve the state’s $38 billion budget gap.

The conversation was transmitted to roughly 500 “squawk boxes” around Sacramento that political staff, lobbyists and reporters use to listen in on legislative proceedings.

“The Democrats are putting on a little bit of a show for everyone; it’s a circus,” an aide to one Republican member of the state Assembly, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told WorldNetDaily. The staffer was referring not only to the Democrats’ meeting, but subsequent comments by party leaders that suggested division within the ranks.

According to the Stockton Record, in response to the meeting flap, Democratic Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson Tuesday said, “A few members of our caucus had a bull session yesterday. It happens every day on both sides of the aisles. Unfortunately, they were in a room when the microphone was on.”

Steve Peace, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’ budget chief, however, called the lawmakers on the tape “fringe Democrats” and said extremists from both parties were poisoning the political process, the paper said.

“The idea that anybody believes that prolonging this crisis … has any value political or otherwise is goofy,” Peace said. “It’s a goofy idea.”

Fellow Democrat Wesson shot back: “No, they are not fringe Democrats having a goofy conversation. They are valued members of this caucus,” reported the Record.

Peace also made news this week after he lost his cool in a Capitol hallway while confronting Republican Assemblyman John Campbell after a Republican news conference on the open-mic incident.

“We need a budget! Send us a budget!” Peace bellowed at Campbell, according to the Sacramento Bee.

After a colleague led a stunned Campbell away, the report said, Peace defended the governor: “Nobody has spent more time personally pushing on me and everybody else associated in the Capitol to try to get a budget on time,” choking back tears.

‘No one wins’

While the GOP aide emphasized the Democrats’ “fighting among themselves,” the Assembly Republican Caucus chairman told WND the scandal doesn’t necessarily help the GOP in the budget process.

“It doesn’t help our side,” Assemblyman Tony Strickland said. “No one wins in this.”

Strickland decried the Democrats’ tactic of publicly blaming the Republicans for stalling the budget-approval process.

“They’ve said we’re the ones who are killing people [on state assistance]” by stalling a budget deal, Strickland explained, “yet privately, they’re the ones talking about delaying it.”

The approval of a state budget is more than three weeks overdue. Payments to community colleges next month likely will be missed, causing some schools to consider shutting down for the fall semester.

“Wall Street won’t lend [the state] any more money,” the GOP staffer stated.

The two leaders of the state Senate, Democrat John Burton and Republican Jim Brulte, are working to craft a budget plan that does not raise taxes – a Republican requirement.

During the meeting Democrats thought was secret, Los Angeles Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and others discussed holding up the budget to build support for a ballot initiative that would make it easier to raise taxes.

“Since this is going to be a crisis, the crisis could be this year,” Goldberg said, according to a transcript. “No one’s running [for re-election]. And maybe you end up better off than you would have, and maybe you don’t. But what you do is you show people that you can’t get to this without a 55 percent vote.”

The ballot initiative, which supporters are hoping to get on the March 2004 ballot, would change the number of legislators needed to pass a budget from two-thirds to just 55 percent.

Assemblyman Fabian Nunez of Culver City agreed with Goldberg: “If you don’t have a budget, it helps Democrats If you don’t have a budget, it helps Democrats on the 55 percent (initiative). The folks that are heading up the anti-recall effort think if you don’t have the budget, it helps Democrats in the recall effort.” Nunez was thought to be next in line to be Assembly speaker, but his comments in the meeting may change the party’s plans, insiders say.

After about 90 minutes, a staffer interrupted the meeting to alert lawmakers that their meeting was not private at all:

“Excuse me, guys, you can be heard outside,” the unidentified aide said.

“Oh [expletive], [expletive],” Goldberg said.

“The squawk box is on,” the staff member said. “You need to turn it off right there.”

The Republican news conference, led by Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox, included the playing of portions of a 15-minute tape Republicans made of the meeting. He charged the conversation proves it is the Democrats and not Republicans who are holding up the budget process.

“Their behavior is dangerous, hurtful and frankly just mean-spirited,” Cox told reporters.

Strickland thinks the open-mic scandal will have “some effect” on the current effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis.

“The Davis Democrats … equated the two,” he said, referring to the action of holding up the budget and helping Davis fight the recall.

For their part, GOP members of the state Senate are trying to stay above the fray.

“We’re working on the budget,” Nghia Demovic, spokeswoman for Brulte, told WND. “[The controversy] hasn’t affected what we’re doing.”

Of the comments made at the infamous meeting, Demovic said: “I think the transcript speaks for itself.”

Read transcript of portions of the Democrats’ meeting. (You must have Adobe Acrobat to view this .pdf file.)

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