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Democrats pin hopes on state Senate control sometime in 2018

2018 might finally be the year that Democrats regain control of the state Senate. But they face a number of obstacles, and Republicans aren’t ready to give up any time soon.

Two feuding factions of Democrats in the Senate have agreed to reunite later next year and perhaps rule the chamber, but it can happen only if a number of events occur first.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under pressure from left-leaning Democrats to be a peace broker, last month called on the eight breakaway members of the Independent Democratic Conference to rejoin with the rest of the Democrats.

“I urge both sides to stop their intramural disputes and unify,” Cuomo said on Nov. 28. “Because we have real issues.”

But when the session formally begins on Jan. 3, Democrats will fall two seats short of the 32 members they would need to control the chamber. Two senators were elected to new positions in November, and their seats will be vacant.

Cuomo said he’ll call special elections for those seats, which are in staunchly Democratic districts, but not until after the budget is completed, perhaps sometime in the spring.

“You need to get a budget done also,” Cuomo said on Dec. 13. “And some would argue politicizing the budget isn’t the best idea.”

Cuomo said he’ll make the decision on the actual date of the special elections in January.

Even if Democrats win the Senate posts in special elections, they would not automatically be in the majority. One lone Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder, caucuses with the 31 Republicans and gives them their 32-seat edge. Felder, who represents the traditionally conservative Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, would need to be convinced to meet with the Democrats. Felder has not said yet what he might do.

Mainstream Democratic senators said with all of those variables, even if the Democrats do unite in the closing weeks of the legislative session, it’s not likely they will immediately accomplish an agenda that they’ve been proposing for years.

Sen. Liz Krueger, who is the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, said issues like women’s reproductive rights, campaign finance reform and transgender rights may be on hold for another year.

“We will have a few weeks, maybe five weeks, when we are officially the majority,” Kruger said in an interview with public radio and television in early December. “So no one should imagine we will turn around the state Legislature and pass every bill we’ve been hoping to pass in our first five weeks. That’s a ridiculous set of assumptions.”

Democrats in the Senate hope to pick up seats in the 2018 elections, and are encouraged by 2017 Democratic wins in the county executive seats in Westchester and Nassau counties, where they believe some Republican Senate incumbents are vulnerable.

Krueger said if Democrats gain seats, a number of bills stalled in the Senate for years and supported in the Democratic-led Assembly may finally become law.

Republicans, though, say they aren’t going anywhere. They say they plan to increase their numbers next November and hang on to the Senate.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.