With More Security And 2 Arrests Outside, Washington Lawmakers Approve Rules For Remote Session

The Washington State Senate convened Monday, Jan. 11 to approve the rule that will allow them to meet mostly remotely during the session. In person, only eight people are allowed on the Senate floor, and all must wear facial coverings. CREDIT: Austin Jenkins/N3
The Washington State Senate convened Monday, Jan. 11 to approve the rule that will allow them to meet mostly remotely during the session. In person, only eight people are allowed on the Senate floor, and all must wear facial coverings. CREDIT: Austin Jenkins/N3

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BY AUSTIN JENKINS & CASEY MARTIN

The Washington Legislature approved rules Monday that lawmakers to meet remotely because of the pandemic. The in-person votes in Olympia happened under tight security with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

The session opened with a handful of senators allowed on the floor. All socially distanced and wearing masks, they gathered to adopt rules to allow them to legislate remotely going forward.

Majority Democrats, such as Senate Floor Leader Marko Liias, defended the shift to a remote session as difficult but necessary.

“I wish we were not in the middle of a global pandemic but we are, and we have to follow the best guidance that we have from the experts that we have in this state,” Liias said.

Some Minority Republicans, including state Sen. Mike Padden and Sen. Sharon Brown, objected to the rules changes and the fact the Capitol is closed to the public. They wanted to allow the public inside the Capitol with masks and social distancing.

“What we’re doing today is we are removing that access to democracy,” Brown said.

Padden called for Gov. Jay Inslee to remove emergency fencing that now surrounds the Capitol. In doing so, Padden invoked former President Ronald Reagan.

“And I remember on June 12, 1987, Padden said on the Senate floor, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ And I say today, Governor Inslee tear down this wall.”

The fence is part of extraordinary security measures taken in the wake of what happened at the U.S. Capitol last week – and concerns that people might try to occupy the state Capitol. Inslee also called up the National Guard. In the end, a couple dozen protesters showed up Monday – some openly carrying military-style rifles.

When it was time to vote, senators filed onto the floor one by one like a march of the penguins.

In the end, majority Democrats prevailed. The Capitol will remain closed to the public. Democrats argued public access will be expanded because people will be able to testify on bills from the comfort of home. 

Protests And Arrests Outside

The State Patrol arrested two people outside the Capitol.

“It’s a tragedy that we have to do what we have done. It’s a tragedy,” said Chris Loftis with the State Patrol during an afternoon news conference. “Those fences are there. It’s a tragedy. We have had to call in these extra resources from across the state at extraordinary expense.”

He noted it was crucial for lawmakers to return to work safely, despite the angry crowd.

Washington National Guard troops set up outside the state Capitol Jan. 10, 2021, ahead of the session beginning on Monday, Jan. 11. Security is heightened after threats recently, following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. CREDIT: Austin Jenkins/N3

Washington National Guard troops set up outside the state Capitol Jan. 10, 2021, ahead of the session beginning on Monday, Jan. 11. Security is heightened after threats recently, following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. CREDIT: Austin Jenkins/N3

“We have the resolve it had to be done and we did it. If it needs to be done again, we will do it,” he said.

The Patrol says one of the people arrested Monday, a 30-year-old Everett man, is also a suspect in the Jan. 6 security breach of a gate on the property of governor’s residence. He’s also the first person arrested connected to that investigation.

More Productive?

Democratic Sen. Joe Nguyen, whose district includes the Seattle neighborhood of White Center, says the changes are surreal.

“When you’re worried about your public safety that’s a whole different kind of dynamic. And that’s not how democracy should work. It’s fine to have debates. It’s fine to have disagreements. But wow, it’s just a very different paradigm that we’re in right now,” Nguyen said.

He predicts lawmakers will be more productive than some might expect. After Monday, the House will meet remotely. The Senate will have some lawmakers meet in person while others work via Zoom in a hybrid plan.

Nguyen says the pandemic has forced him to talk to more of his fellow lawmakers in advance of the session.

Lawmakers need to pass a new two-year state budget in this 105-day session.

Austin Jenkins is Olympia correspondent for the public media Northwest News Network (N3). Casey Martin reports for N3 member station KUOW.

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