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Skelos likely to end reign as majority leader in State Senate

ALBANY – Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos will cease to be the head of the Senate Republicans on Monday. The only question is whether he pulls the plug on his leadership himself, or whether his fellow Senate Republicans depose him, GOP sources said Sunday.

The betting by every Republican who discussed the matter was that Skelos will step down from his leadership post.

Senate Republicans have scheduled an 11 a.m. private meeting for Monday at the Capitol, when Skelos is going to be told – unless he voluntarily steps down – that he no longer has the support of the 32-member GOP conference, sources said.

The real fight centered on who would replace Skelos as he faces federal corruption charges. Still up in the air was whether the new GOP leader will be Sen. John A. DeFrancisco of the Syracuse area or Sen. John J. Flanagan Jr. of Suffolk County. They were to meet Sunday to discuss a unity plank in order to restore the conference’s ability to work together across geographic, philosophical and age differences.

Under one scenario, DeFrancisco would be the majority leader and Flanagan the deputy majority leader, though with stronger powers than now exist for the No. 2 legislator in the Senate.

But the Flanagan forces have been insisting that he has the backing of enough senators to become majority leader.

“I don’t think either has it nailed down yet,” a Republican said Sunday.

A number of Republicans interviewed Sunday – all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the fragile nature of the discussions – insisted they believe that Skelos is not going ahead with a threat made Friday that he would quit his Senate seat in addition to his leadership post unless he retained the title of majority leader.

If Skelos quit his seat, which he has held since 1984, that would leave the Republicans with 31 votes in the 63-member chamber, and Senate Deputy Leader Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, has been too sick to travel from his second home in Florida, where he is battling cancer.

Moreover, if Skelos quit, Republicans say, it is likely that Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who sits with the GOP conference, would join with the Democrats – making the mathematical equations dire for the Republicans’ bid to hold on to power. “He will do it on his own,” one Republican official said of Skelos quitting his leadership post but not vacating his seat.

As for Skelos quitting his seat outright, one Republican involved in the testy talks said, “That’s fine when you are home, but once you get in Albany and face the conference and the magnitude of what’s involved, any thoughts of that recede into the background with what he has to do for his fellow (GOP) conference members and for the state.”

The source said it would be a “logical marriage” for DeFrancisco to combine forces with Flanagan to avoid a bitter upstate/downstate fight in the conference. Republicans have said they are worried what a fractured Senate will mean for the final six weeks of the 2015 session, and for re-election efforts in 2016.

A Senate Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that the effort to remove Skelos is being opposed by only a few hard-core Skelos supporters. But people close to Skelos said he had come to the conclusion over the weekend that he can’t remain as leader.

Of course, nothing in Albany is ever certain until all votes are cast. And in this case, a change in leadership would have to be approved by the full Senate. Democrats have already submitted the paperwork they say is necessary to suspend the Senate floor rules to take a vote Monday to remove Skelos – if the scheduled afternoon session even occurs.

One Republican talked of a doomsday scenario: Skelos quits his seat entirely, Libous can’t vote, and Felder joins the Democrats. “If we lose the Senate now, I’d don’t think we’d ever get it back,” a Republican said.

Still, most Republicans said calmer heads will prevail as senators, once they get into a room Monday morning, see political self-preservation will be dictated by their ability to overcome intraparty differences and unify.

If geography was the only consideration – and it is not – DeFrancisco would seem to have the benefit. Depending on the definition of upstate – meaning north of Westchester County – there are 21 Republicans from upstate, nine from Long Island, and two from New York City.

The last several days of jockeying has been divisive, with Long Island lawmakers seeking to keep Senate power in the hands of a downstater and some upstate Republicans insisting that it is time to return the power to its upstate base.

Those Senate Republicans willing to publicly talk were revealing little. “I, with my colleagues, are looking to solve this problem. That has not changed, and I’d imagine, hopefully, we’ll be successful very shortly,”’ said Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst.

Democrats on Sunday were asking the major question that everyone else was asking: “We’re now at the point where we know there are a majority of votes in the Senate to remove Dean Skelos as leader,” said Sen. Michael N. Gianaris of Queens, head of the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee.

“The question now is whether the Republicans will take action internally in order to avoid a messy floor fight,” Gianaris said.

The answer to that over the years would have been easy: Yes. But the last week has shown a remarkable split in the GOP conference – remarkable only in that the internal dispute by the otherwise disciplined group of Republicans has spilled very much into the open.

While some Democrats were hopeful the GOP infighting would continue to rage and force an unpredictable floor fight, a number of Democrats appeared resigned Sunday to a course in which the GOP would say goodbye to Skelos and unite around a Republican replacement.

Skelos and his forces have exhibited many of the same reactions that former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and his allies exhibited after Silver’s arrest on corruption charges and in the days before he lost the support of Democrats: confidence at first, then slipping into a frantic search for supporters, then defiance, anger and finally an understanding that the fight was over.

Meanwhile, Carl P. Paladino, the Buffalo developer and 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate, sent an email to Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, who Republicans say behind the scenes has been backing Flanagan. In his email, obtained Sunday night, Paladino warned her: “If you sell out to the downstaters I can assure you you will have a blistering primary next year.”

Paladino has long targeted Skelos as too liberal and too cozy with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and, along with other upstate Republicans, is pushing for DeFrancisco.