SACRAMENTO -- After a fiery and passionate debate about how to punish lawmakers accused of criminal wrongdoing, the state Senate on Friday voted 28-1 to suspend -- with pay -- three disgraced colleagues, marking the first time any lawmaker has faced the penalty in the Legislature's history.
The vote came two days after federal authorities charged Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, with conspiracy to traffic firearms and accepting bribes for political favors.
"We unequivocally distance ourselves from the unfathomable allegations contained in the Yee indictment as well as the other cases," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said. "Only this body may allow them back, and only if they are exonerated."
Current law mandates that the three officials -- Yee, Ronald Calderon, D-Montebello, and Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood -- receive their $90,526 annual salary while suspended, which is why some Republican lawmakers argue that nothing short of their expulsion will do.
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego, was the only lawmaker in the 40-member Senate who voted against the suspensions, comparing them to a paid "Roman holiday" for people who deserve to be behind bars. An expulsion vote, which Anderson supports, would terminate an elected official's salary and benefits immediately.
"Senators are not above the law," said Anderson, who himself was fined $20,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission in 2009 for laundering campaign funds.
Several weeks ago, Steinberg would not consider calls by Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, to suspend Wright and Calderon, but the allegations against Yee changed his mind. All three officials should be treated equally, Steinberg concluded.
The Senate could have expelled the lawmakers. But Steinberg and many other senators have repeatedly said they would not consider voting to expel lawmakers until they are convicted and have exhausted their appeals.
The last time California lawmakers considered a motion to expel another legislator was in 1905.
Suspended lawmakers cannot participate in any votes or use their offices. They cannot even set foot on the Assembly or Senate floors, though they are allowed to enter the Capitol, which is a public building.
Conversely, when lawmakers take voluntary leaves of absence, they can decide to end their leaves and return to their duties in Sacramento at any time. Calderon and Wright were on such leaves before Friday's vote.
Steinberg on Friday also introduced a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature power to suspend its members for wrongdoing and not have to pay their salaries. But before the measure can be placed on the November ballot, it must win support from two-thirds of members in both houses of the Legislature.
In 2010, voters passed another measure that prevented legislators from getting paid if they don't approve a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline.
If the latest proposal goes before voters this fall and passes, Calderon and Yee -- who will be termed-out this year --would only lose their salaries from Nov. 5 to Dec. 1, when newly elected senators will be sworn in.
Before the suspension vote, Steinberg said he was shocked to see so many of his colleagues face felony charges this year, which will be his last as a lawmaker because of term limits.
"One is an anomaly, two a coincidence, but three?" Steinberg said.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday joined a chorus of other top California politicians, including U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in calling for Yee, Calderon and Wright to quit.
"Given the extraordinary circumstances of these cases -- and today's unprecedented suspensions -- the best way to restore public confidence is for these senators to resign," Brown said.
Had Steinberg failed to take swift action against his colleagues after the Yee allegations were made public, he would have put every other senator at risk of being painted with the "culture of corruption brush," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State.
"He reached the point where he knew he couldn't wait any longer," Gerston said. "Waiting for these issues to be sorted out at trial would be too costly politically."
Huff, the Republican leader, said he was pleased that Steinberg allowed the Senate to take equal action about all three senators accused of corruption.
"It allows us to move forward from this dark cloud of ethics violations and corruption allegations," Huff said. "The Senate faces a great deal of work on behalf of the people this year, and it's important that the first task was to restore the public's trust."
On Friday and in statements earlier this week, Steinberg addressed criticism of the chamber but assured the public that the actions of the three lawmakers don't reflect the good work done by the rest of the body.
That assurance isn't good enough, said Bill Whalen, a former aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson who is now a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He urged Steinberg to appoint an independent commission to investigate the "culture of corruption" in Sacramento.
"Voting to suspend these three senators is, in effect, giving them a timeout," Whalen said. "It's like a car going over three really quick speed bumps and hoping it won't hit potholes. It's about the easiest thing the Senate could have done."
After Friday's vote, Paul De Meester, Yee's lawyer, issued a statement saying: "Suspension is the right step for now, and is appropriate in a system that presumes the innocence of the accused."
In February, Calderon surrendered to authorities after being indicted on bribery charges. A month before, Wright was convicted of voter fraud and perjury stemming from a 2010 indictment.
Steinberg on Friday also announced plans to cancel a Senate floor session in April so that lawmakers and their staffs can participate in mandatory ethics training. And he urged staff members with concerns about their bosses' behavior to come forward and report it.
Speaking with reporters shortly after the vote, Steinberg said the Senate already has "intensive" ethics training for lawmakers and staff members, but that there are some common-sense things you just can't teach.
"I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality or the danger of gunrunning or other such sordid activities," he said.