SACRAMENTO (AP) – They began the year with a legislative advantage no party had seen in 80 years in California – a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the Legislature.

Yet since then, the Democratic leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have sparred over important legislation dealing with water, environmental protection, the Public Records Act, municipal corruption and more.

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They couldn’t even agree on when to recess the Legislature for the summer, choosing different breaks that caused momentary disarray and confusion.

Now they are at odds and in a sniping mood on how to respond to a federal court order to reduce California’s prison population by the end of the year. Time is running out to find a compromise, and the stakes couldn’t be higher, with federal judges poised to override state law and order early releases of convicts.

The gulf between Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento also could jeopardize this year’s key pieces of legislation just as they are heading for their final votes in the last two weeks of the regular legislative session.

The Assembly Budget Committee on Thursday unanimously advanced a temporary prison fix supported by Perez, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, both of the Legislature’s Republican leaders, and statewide law enforcement and civic groups. The proposal calls for spending $315 million from the state’s $1.1 billion budget reserve this year, and $730 million over two years, to lease beds in private prisons and county jail cells to meet the court’s order of reducing the inmate population by another 9,600 inmates.

Perez told Capitol Public Radio on Thursday that he has been side-stepping Steinberg to talk privately with senators of both parties and believes there are enough votes to pass the governor’s plan. A day earlier, he and Brown dismissed the alternate plan presented by Steinberg, which focuses on beefing up rehabilitation and drug and mental health treatment programs as a way to turn more people away from a life of crime.

The Senate leader said the governor’s plan will not even be considered in his chamber, raising questions about whether lawmakers can agree on any plan that would satisfy the federal judges before this year’s legislative session ends Sept. 13.

Next week, the Senate Budget Committee is expected to advance Senate Democrats’ alternative proposal to give counties $200 million this year, and eventually $300 million annually, for programs Steinberg said will lower the rate at which parolees are returned to prison.

After the spat erupted publicly this week, Steinberg postponed the Senate’s confirmation of two of Brown’s appointees to key positions in the prison system. The governor’s nominations will expire unless they are confirmed before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

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“There are questions about this administration’s commitment to dealing with recidivism in California,” Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams said.

Beyond the prison stalemate, the two leaders publicly aired their differences in recent weeks over other major issues facing lawmakers.

Steinberg is pushing changes to the landmark California Environmental Quality Act to curb lawsuit abuse, but Perez told reporters nothing is likely to happen on it this year. They differ on the size and scope of what currently is an $11.1 billion water bond on next year’s ballot and earlier this year were at odds over how to undo the damage from a budget bill that threatened the public’s access to government documents.

Despite the drama, political veterans predicted the leaders eventually will resolve their differences on vital issues. It helps that Democrats have a two-thirds majority in the Senate, allowing Steinberg to ignore minority Republicans, while Perez is just one vote short of a supermajority in the Assembly after voters handed Democrats uncontested control of state government last fall.

“I used to have arguments with speakers; they used to have arguments with me. When it’s all over, something seems to happen,” said California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, the blunt-speaking and often mercurial Senate leader from 1998 until 2004.

Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Perez and two former Assembly speakers, said there is a natural tension between the two houses no matter who is in charge because lawmakers come from different political districts and represent competing constituencies.

“It’s less about parties and more about long-simmering rivalries between the two houses,” he said.


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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.