California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) never starred in a soap opera before forsaking acting for politics, but his relationship with state lawmakers is beginning to resemble one.
Earlier this month, he ridiculed them as "girlie men" for not bending to his budget wishes. This week, with a budget deal in hand, he praised them for showing a "new, refreshed, positive kind of attitude" of bipartisanship. Then he renewed a call to make them part-timers in the state capital.
Since he took office last November, Schwarzenegger has never been at a loss for strong words -- he recently vowed to "fight like a warrior for the people." But his latest "Terminator" talk could profoundly change politics in the nation's most populous state -- if it is more than just talk.
Schwarzenegger's chief spokesman said this week that the governor might push for a special election next year and ask voters to curtail the legislature's power by relegating it to part-time status, limiting the role lawmakers have in redistricting and imposing new restrictions on their political fundraising.
"It's not an idle threat," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director. "Eight months in office have confirmed what he suspected: The grip that special interests have on the legislature is substantial. It's worse than he thought."
This spring, Schwarzenegger first mentioned his interest in having the legislature work only part time. "Spending so much time in Sacramento, without anything to do, then out come the strange bills," he told the Los Angeles Times while he was vacationing in Maui. But he did not pursue the idea.
California is one of four states with a legislature that is on the job full time. Seven other state legislatures stay in session for about 80 percent of the year. California has 120 Assembly and Senate members, and they earn between $99,000 and $113,000 a year.
Some political activists in the state, including those who initiated last year's recall campaign against then-Gov. Gray Davis (D), have been considering creating a ballot measure that would call for a part-time legislature and give the governor more power. Schwarzenegger dismissed the proposal during his first weeks in office, saying he preferred to find bipartisan ways to work with the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.
But he has shown increasing frustration with lawmakers during this summer's rancorous debate over the budget, which is nearly a month overdue. At rallies around the state in recent weeks, he has urged voters to go to the polls this year and "terminate" legislators who are not cooperating with him.
Some lawmakers say they are puzzled by Schwarzenegger's latest vow. "Maybe he's got ideas for all of us to be in 'Terminator 4.' We could work full time in Hollywood and part time for the legislature," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D). "I have no idea what he's thinking."
Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that a part-time legislature could in some ways make life easier for Schwarzenegger, but that he would still need votes for his proposals from a majority of Democrats who might resent him for diminishing their authority and political stature.
"The reality is, there is a kind of schizophrenia to Arnold's governance," Cain said. "On the one hand, he's smoking cigars and schmoozing with the legislature and talking the bipartisan talk, and on the other hand, he has this anti-legislature rhetoric."
Stutzman said that Schwarzenegger simply wants to promote what he sees as government reform. "The governor has been saying things like this all along," he said. "What's wrong with having a public debate about how much time legislators spend in the capital?"