SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — On paper, the number of Democrats in Illinois' General Assembly looks formidable, holding "supermajorities" in both chambers that would allow them to override any veto by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
When it comes time to vote, however, that strength is tempered by a number of independent-voting lawmakers, especially in the House, who have the ability to make life difficult for party leaders.
The fissures, evident last spring during failed negotiations over extending an income tax increase, could prove problematic at times this year as tense budget negotiations play out between the new Republican governor and Democrats, led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
Democrats have the numbers, but not the power needed to enforce their agenda. They've signaled they want — and may need — Republican votes on any deal to fix the state's financial crisis. Rauner, meanwhile, has made overtures to woo independent Democrats to his side and wields a $20 million war chest with which he aims to support lawmakers who back him.
"The term supermajority, it's a myth," said Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo. "And it's probably more of a hindrance than a help. It creates expectations that aren't realistic."
Franks is one of several lawmakers who pride themselves as independents. In his case, he's the only elected Democrat in rock-ribbed Republican McHenry County and therefore wary of being seen toeing any Democratic line. He describes himself as a pro-labor Democrat endorsed by numerous unions, but also says he's never voted for a Democratic budget or a tax or fee increase in his 16 years in the statehouse.
Franks and fellow Democratic Rep. Scott Drury of Highwood, who also crosses party lines on occasion, opposed last spring's "millionaire tax" push by Madigan and other Democrats. Madigan withdrew the proposal within weeks, which would tack a 3 percent surcharge on income earned over $1 million, due to lack of support, but has re-introduced it this year. The two also were among about a half-dozen lawmakers who opposed extending the temporary income tax hike increase, which their Democratic colleagues felt was necessary to fund the $35.7 billion budget.
In recent weeks, Rauner has made a point of publicly praising Franks and Drury when issuing executive orders that complement legislative proposals they've made, and has invited each of them to be present at the events.
"He looks at my voting record and sees I'm someone willing to consider issues," Drury said. "I'm willing to reach across party lines and not just say it."
That friendliness could benefit Rauner, as Madigan and others want to consider new revenue sources considered to offset drastic budget cuts the governor proposed to close an expected $6 billion revenue gap next year.
In the November election, Democrats maintained their 71 seat majority in the 118-seat House, enough to override any Rauner veto. Democrats lost one Senate seat, but still control 39 of 59 seats, giving them a supermajority with three votes to spare.
"Those of us who have been here for a while are growing annoyed at taking those tough votes (in the Senate)," Democratic state Sen. Michael Noland said. "We know, predictably, those votes won't be called in the House."
The cohesiveness of each caucus is complicated by philosophical and regional differences, while some lawmakers in swing districts are vulnerable to re-election challenges. Madigan is renowned for the ability to piece together majorities needed for crucial legislation, but spokesman Steve Brown routinely plays down the importance of the House's nominal supermajority, noting disagreements in any given session.
"I don't know that anybody should interpret the size of the caucus as something that can be expected to march in the same direction," Brown said.
Ken Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said it's "certainly wrong to think that this is just a matter of the Democrats waiting to agree on a strategy among themselves and then run a rush on the governor. I don't see either side able to position themselves in a way that they can get all of what they want."
Democrats in the House and Senate appear to approach things differently, too, something that became evident in recent weeks when Senate Democrats initially balked at giving Rauner authority to transfer funds to keep some agencies from running out of money. They later passed a proposal to free up some funds, but without giving Rauner authority to spend it. House leaders have remained silent, to the consternation of some Senate Democrats.
With major issues like the budget, though, the governor may have to force all parties' hands. Budget director Tim Nuding told lawmakers Thursday that Rauner's office was intent on working to "try to get a solution all four caucuses can agree to."