TRENTON - The power struggle between Gov. Christie and state Democrats intensified Thursday when the Senate voted to dump an acting Morris County prosecutor Christie put into office last Friday.
Stunned Republican senators stood to question the surprise move. But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who has considered opposing Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election, let them say little before he shouted them down and called for a vote.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, rejected Fredric M. Knapp by 24-13.
"Senate President, this is like martial law," Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Essex) called out as Sweeney barreled through the steps leading to the vote. Afterward, he compared Sweeney's maneuvering to that "of fascist and communist regimes."
Though Democrats contend that Knapp can no longer hold the office into which he was sworn in last week, the governor's office said the Senate vote was meaningless "partisan theater."
"The Senate majority has now confirmed what we already knew - that they have made the confirmation process a mockery," spokesman Michael Drewniak said. "Their action today is of no practical consequence. Mr. Knapp will be renominated by the governor, and he will stay in place at the Morris County Prosecutor's Office."
The vote came after Christie, saying he was fed up with Senate delay tactics, began using executive powers to muscle through appointees whom Democrats have been slow to approve.
"Today's vote and today's actions were taken to step back and push back on the executive branch's overreaching of power, power that is vested in this house by the constitution," said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), chairman of the Judicial Committee.
Last Friday, Christie bypassed the committee and installed Knapp as acting prosecutor. He nominated Knapp in June to replace Robert A. Bianchi, a holdover from the Corzine administration whose term had just ended. Knapp waited for a hearing, but Democrats never scheduled one.
On Wednesday, Christie invoked a provision in legislation that enables the restructuring of the state university system to dodge a Senate procedural block that kept Martin Perez, his choice for the Rutgers University board of governors, in limbo since 2011.
Sweeney, whose attacks against Christie have grown more bellicose in recent weeks, called that move "a reckless disregard for the law." Christie dismissed that as "totally inaccurate."
Sweeney, whose public relationship with Christie swings between love and hate, used every inch of power afforded him to send Christie a message Thursday.
Most expected the Senate's final voting session of the year to move quickly. Senators had left gifts on colleagues' desks, including stuffed Big Birds, courtesy of Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union).
But no sooner had Sweeney taken roll when Scutari stood to ask that the Senate skip a committee hearing on Knapp and go straight to a vote.
"I'm just trying to follow what we're doing here," said O'Toole. "We're bypassing the committee? Is that what we're doing procedurally?"
"The governor bypassed us in his actions, and we're going to give his nominee a vote," Sweeney shot back.
"I just, just -," O'Toole said before Sweeney cut him off.
"I'm not going to entertain a whole lot of debate with you, Senator," Sweeney said.
"It's a question more than a debate," O'Toole said. "Is the procedure going forward that, if there's nominations made by the governor, we're going to go right to the floor? Or -."
"Procedure is to respect the Senate and the constitution, which is three separate branches of government," Sweeney interrupted.
O'Toole and Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union) tried to say more, but Sweeney ordered the vote to begin.
Dings filled the chamber as senators pressed their voting buttons.
"No, no, no, Mr. President. By what rule are we doing this, Mr. President?" Kean asked.
"We're allowed to do this, Senator," Sweeney said before plowing on, shouting down Republican protests. "Green for yes, red for no."