Brown: Compromise-minded Cullerton is nobody’s pet rock

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Senate President John Cullerton, who would like to be seen as the reasonable man in the state budget battles, suggested Wednesday that Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislators go back to square one and start over.

“His plan is dead. Our plan is dead. Let’s acknowledge that and start moving forward,” Cullerton said.

Cullerton’s overture was promptly rejected by the governor’s office as more of the same from Democrats, so promptly in fact that Cullerton had yet to finish speaking before Rauner’s dismissive response landed in the inboxes of reporters covering the event.

Cullerton appeared surprised but undeterred by the rapid rebuff of his suggestion that Rauner submit a new budget — with the proviso the governor actually make sure it is a balanced budget this time.

Admittedly, this wasn’t a particularly helpful approach, because Rauner has always pretended his budget WAS balanced. Starting over would require the governor to be truthful, which isn’t his strong suit.

Still, it was an interesting gambit for Cullerton, who perpetually finds himself fighting against the perception he is the third wheel in Illinois government’s leadership troika behind Republican Rauner and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, his fellow Democrat.

OPINION

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Although equal in power with Madigan on paper, it’s the long-entrenched speaker who is most often seen as the one calling all the shots for Democrats.

Rauner tapped into that narrative earlier this week when he told reporters he and Cullerton and Mayor Rahm Emanuel could have worked out a budget deal by now if not for Madigan being an obstructionist.

Although I’m not sure Cullerton ever came right out and said it Wednesday, the plain subtext of his press conference was to let everyone know he and Madigan are united against Rauner’s unreasonable insistence on his “radical” Turnaround Agenda, which remains the real obstacle.

Cullerton called Rauner’s budget proposal “unconscionable and unworkable” and suggested it was the governor’s lack of knowledge about state government that was causing the problems.

“Madigan and I are on the same page when it comes to policy stuff,” Cullerton told me later.

“If we had a normal Republican [as governor], we would have been done,” he said.

Despite their differences, Cullerton said he is looking for a compromise with Rauner. Anybody who knows him would say that’s true.

A dealmaker by nature, Cullerton sometimes chafes at the slights of those who cast him as second banana, but it’s generally more important to him to be the guy who helps get the deal done than the one who gets his way.

There are times when it looks as if the two Democratic leaders are running a good cop/bad cop routine, and I wish I could sort that out for you.

But the relationship between Cullerton and Madigan is opaque at best, as are most things involving the speaker, who is also state party chairman. Whatever disagreements take place in their frequent closed-door strategy sessions tend to stay there.

Cullerton actually controls the stronger super-majority with a 39-20 advantage over Senate Republicans. As a group, Senate Democrats are more liberal than their counterparts in the House, which gives Cullerton a different set of marching orders from his members.

That can create a difficult situation because Cullerton’s ultimate responsibility is to serve those Senate Democrats, many of whom don’t share Madigan’s more conservative outlook and some of whom specifically were trying to get away from the speaker’s tight-fisted control by moving from the House to the Senate.

Cullerton and Madigan are totally different in style.

Faced with a tough issue, Cullerton is likely to come before his Democratic senators and ask: What do you guys want to do?

Madigan is more likely to come into a House Democratic caucus and TELL them what they are going to do, or tell them nothing at all, playing his cards close to the vest even with his own troops.

Yet the men also are longtime friends. Cullerton, who served as Madigan’s floor leader in the House before moving to the Senate, is godfather to Madigan’s son, Andrew.

Cullerton is the good cop by nature, but he’s not Rauner’s friend, and he doesn’t support his policies.

Follow Mark Brown on Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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