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Senate stalemate hinges on Monserrate

In what is widely being called a circus in Albany, state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) has been an acrobat, flipping to vote with Republicans to replace fellow Queens Democrat Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) with a new leader and then doing a 360 to go back into the Democratic fold.

Hours after Monserrate tried to explain his actions, which have brought state government to a standstill, an Albany judge threw out the lawsuit filed by Senate Democrats contending last week’s vote giving Republicans control of the chamber was unlawful.

The Republicans claim the ruling validated the coup that resulted in their control of the upper house. But Democrats interpreted the decision to mean the judge was calling on both parties to sort out the disagreement themselves, further cementing the gridlock in Albany.

In a move that stunned the state, Monserrate sided Senate Republicans to oust Smith by electing Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) as majority leader and rogue Democrat Sen. Pedro Espada (D-Bronx) as Senate president. But Monserrate switched back to the Democratic during the week, which prompted the Democrats to maintain the body is in a 31-31 deadlock.

State Supreme Court Judge Thomas McNamara was reluctant to rule in favor of either party and repeatedly asked both sides to negotiate a resolution themselves as did Gov. David Patterson.

Republicans struck down an offer Monday by Democrats to enter a joint power-sharing agreement.

The proposal included alternating a Democratic and Republican president of the Senate on a daily basis, a daily rotation of floor leaders from both parties and a six-member conference committee %u2013 three Democrats, three Republicans %u2013 that decides which legislation gets to the floor, according to Smith spokesman Austin Shafran.

After McNamara’s ruling Republicans called on their Democratic colleagues to get back to work, but Democrats said only state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), whom they recognized as the Senate president, can call a session.

In a conference call Tuesday with Queens reporters, Monserrate referred to Malcolm X, whom he noted once lived in his district, to explain his vote that gave the GOP control.

“This was a necessary means to get to an end,” the senator said, quoting the black leader. “We understand that sometimes change is difficult.”

Monserrate said his top priority was shaking up the Senate leadership, which he said could not have been done without casting his vote with Republicans last week.

“I didn’t see the change happening any other way,” he said.

The coup that led to GOP control ousted state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) as majority leader.

Smith’s status as head of the Senate Democrats is on shaky ground after his colleagues, including Monserrate, voted to state Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) the title of conference leader.

At an Albany news conference Monday, Smith said Sampson’s role was akin to a CEO in the corporate world. He said Sampson would run the Democrats’ “day-to-day operations.”

Other than voting for a leadership change, Monserrate said he also sided with Republicans and Espadato enact reforms.

Monserrate said “progressive legislation” that he supported, including ending vacancy decontrolof apartments, now “has a fair chance of getting to the floor” of the Senate.

Another bill that has not made it to the floor, Monserrate said, was one that would require police officers who discharged their guns to be tested for drugs and alcohol.

Ironically, that bill came out of a tri-level Legislative Task Force formed by Smith in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting.

Monserrate said the “past leadership” in the Senate committed to pushing the legislation through, “but we had never once had a discussion on this issue in the state Senate.”

“If it took voting with Republicans and Pedro Espada to get to the point where we disclose incredibly important bills ... then that is a major victory,” he said. “This is the biggest victory that I could’ve had in my political career to date.”

Monserrate struck down speculation that he was motivated by promises of perks.

“This has never been to me about a committee or stipend or a chairmanship,” he said.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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