News Local/State

Senate GOP Says “Grand Bargain” Blocked; Dems Point To Rauner

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton

Senate President John Cullerton speaks with reporters after the 'grand bargain' failed to advance. Brian Mackey / WUIS

The Illinois Senate’s so-called grand bargain was put on hold Wednesday. After months of negotiations and a deadline from their own caucus leader, Senate Republicans say they aren't quite ready to vote.

Democrats blame the last-minute withdrawal on interference by Gov. Bruce Rauner. 

Democrats and Republicans have set a series of deadlines for their grand bargain. Early January, late January, mid-February, and most recently, this, when Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno was on WGN radio.

“If we don’t get this moving by the 28th, we may as well just go home”, said Radogno.

Time is of the essence. Illinois has gone 20 months without a real budget. The state is $12 billion behind on paying its bills. The grand bargain is an effort to finally rectify the failure to pass a budget — while also giving Republicans some of the pro-business ideas Gov. Rauner has been pushing for two years.

Things appeared to be on track Tuesday, when five of the bills passed with bipartisan support. But those were relatively easy votes. The harder stuff was put off until Wednesday. And by the end of the day, Republicans once again decided they were not yet ready.

Radogno, who initiated the grand bargain negotiations last December, tried put on a good face on the situation.

 “To a person, the people that I have spoken with have been sincere, honest, willing to compromise”, said Radono.”. And with that kind of an attitude in this chamber, I have no question in my mind that we’re going to bring this thing in for a landing."

Senate President John Cullerton, however, says Rauner made a last minute intervention to scuttle the deal.

“The governor’s got to realize that this is as good as it’s going to get”, said Cullerton. “Can we make some minor changes? Of course we can. … But he’s got to grow up and get this solved. He’s the governor.”

Other Democrats say Rauner went even further. They say they heard from Republicans that Rauner called them into his office and “threatened” them.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly denied that, calling it “an outrageous allegation.” In an emailed statement, she says the governor thinks "more work is needed to achieve a good deal.”

Republican Sen. Bill Brady, from Bloomington, says he met with the governor and agrees with him. He also disputed the Democrats’ version of the story.

“The governor is not the type of guy who threatens”, said Brady. “He will be happy to share his opinion, but I think that’s a complete mischaracterization."

That, however, did not deter Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park.

“I would ask the Republican members on the other end of that conversation how they felt, because whether the governor thinks he and his team threatened them or not, the reports that we’ve gotten from our Republican colleagues are that they were threatened.”

I tried to ask about this with Republican Sen. Chris Nybo, from Elmhurst. He’d voted for a couple of the grand bargain bills passed the day before. That made him just the sort of Republican that Democrats say the governor was targeting.

But as I stood in the doorway to his Capitol office, Nybo said he did not want to talk about the grand bargain, dismissing my questions with a curt “no comment”..

Whatever happened in those private conversations, something changed.

Still, Republicans say they’re not walking away from the grand bargain. Karen McConnaughay is from St. Charles.

“We know what we need to get for the districts that we represent”, said McConnaughay. “And we’re working with our leader, and with Cullerton and the Democrats to resolve those differences — that’s what the give-and-take of this process is all about.”

Democrats, however, say they’re fed up with what they describe as the Republicans’ constantly shifting demands. Don Harmon says in Springfield, the easy way to say “no" is to say, “Just one more thing.”

“It’s always one more thing”, said Harmon. “One more thing means no, and that’s the message we heard loud and clear today.”

What’s not clear is what happens next. Radogno said she’s confident senators can bring the grand bargain in for a landing. But time is running out, and one of the passengers is reaching for the controls.