Political bipartisan spirit short-lived in New Jersey

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 05, 2011 6:23 PM
Political bipartisan spirit short-lived in New Jersey

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The bipartisan spirit that accompanied New Jersey's passage of a major overhaul of public employee benefits only lasted as long as it took to enact a state spending plan -- about one week.

After Republican Governor Chris Christie sliced $900 million from a budget approved by Democratic lawmakers, President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, called Christie a "rotten bastard," according to a quote in the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper.

The New Jersey Republican Party on Tuesday called on Sweeney to apologize for his remarks.

Sweeney spokesman Christopher Donnelly said while the remarks "may have been a bit too much, he makes no apology for them." He added that Sweeney "remains upset about the deep and unnecessary cuts."

Christie enjoyed a huge political victory last month when the Democrats approved a plan that will force state workers to pay significantly more toward their health care and pensions -- a priority of Christie's since he took office in 2010.

His success in overcoming resistance to legislation raising the retirement age and increasing pension contributions was considered remarkable particularly because the labor movement is stronger in New Jersey than in Midwestern states that have passed similar legislation and because opposition Democrats control both houses of the New Jersey legislature.

The issue has helped vault Christie to national prominence, and he is frequently named as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate.

But the plan's approval came at a potentially significant political cost for Democrats because it was fiercely opposed by public sector unions, which traditionally support Democrats.

Last Thursday -- the state's deadline for passing its fiscal 2012 budget -- Christie rejected nearly every Democratic budget proposal as well as a new tax on the state's highest earners.

He likened Democrats to an overly eager Santa Claus, saying they were pandering to public worker unions and liberal voters. He also said they had fabricated a surplus in order to spend more money.

Sweeney told the Star-Ledger that Christie's cuts were designed to punish Democrats.

"To prove a point to me -- a guy who has stood side by side with him, and made tough decisions -- for him to punish people to prove his political point? He's just a rotten bastard to do what he did," Sweeney was quoted as saying.

Christie's office appeared to take it all in stride:

"The governor believes the language used was inappropriate and disrespectful to the office, but he continues to stand ready to work with Senator Sweeney and the Legislature in a bipartisan manner to get things done for the people of New Jersey," said Christie spokeswoman Maria Comella.

(Reporting by Edith Honan, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)