Tilting to the right
WTOP's Hank Silverberg reports from Richmond
RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Senate Republicans ruled out power sharing with Democrats on Wednesday with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling casting the vote that broke a partisan 20-20 tie, then used Bolling's position to take control of the Senate.
That consolidates Republican dominance of the executive and legislative branches of Virginia government for the first time in 11 years and presents Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell the opportunity to enact a broad array of conservative legislation.
Noting the GOP's power play earlier in the day, McDonnell offered advice for both parties in his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday night.
"To members of the majority, I say, `Don't be arrogant, don't overreach.' To members of the minority, `Don't be angry, don't obstruct,'" McDonnell said.
Republicans rejected a Democratic motion to evenly apportion committee seats and oversee them with co-chairmen, even though Republicans hold the same number of seats as Democrats at 20 each.
Later, Bolling upheld a new GOP Senate organizational plan that deletes a 20-year-old provision guaranteeing the partisan makeup of committees would reflect the Senate's overall partisan composition and took majorities on nine of the Senate's 10 standing committees.
In floor debate about the normally mundane issue of organizing the Senate, Democrats decried Republican changes that would give Republican senators majorities on the Senate's standing committees, the gatekeepers which determine which bills advance to floor votes and which die.
"We are now deleting out of the rules a long tradition that says members will be apportioned to committees according to their numbers," said Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax County, accusing the GOP of a power grab.
"We're now 20-20 and even a non-math major like myself can figure out that that's 50-50," Petersen said.
Of 167 Senate committee seats, Republicans will hold 93, or 55.7 percent. Democrats will hold a 9-6 edge in the obscure Local Governments committee, their only majority. On the Rules Committee, Republicans hold 12 of the 16 seats. Republicans will chair all 10 committees. On
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, said Bolling and the Senate Republicans were "taking a step from which there is no return."
Democrats contended the state Constitution requires the Senate's rules and organization be determined only by senators, noting that the lieutenant governor _ who presides over the Senate and votes only to break ties _ is elected statewide to the executive branch of government.
"I would submit that this is a violation of the Constitution of Virginia," said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. And Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, D-Norfolk, angrily denounced the tactic, accusing the GOP of trampling the constitution by effectively proclaiming Bolling "the new 41st senator."
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., the Senate Republican leader, airily dismissed the Democrats' objections.
"I will not get into a constitutional debate with you on the floor of the Senate on this issue or any other issue," said Norment, who became the Senate majority leader with the vote.
"This is not a power grab. This is a re-articulation on this side of the aisle of the Senate rules as we see appropriate," Norment said tersely.
He said the constitutional provision the Democrats raise "does not address the sovereign ability of this body to organize itself."
He also reminded Democrats that the concept of proportional committee membership was born in 1996, the only other time an election left the Senate with a 20-20 partisan split. That year, Norment noted, Democratic Lt. Gov. Don Beyer intended to side with his party's senators to give them the majority. That changed after a conservative Democrat, Sen. Virgil Goode of Rocky Mount, threatened to side with the GOP unless Democrats agreed to apportion committees evenly and share power. Goode later was elected to Congress and became a Republican before his defeat in 2008.
But by the end of the debate, it was clear that resentments ran deep and, Democrats warned, would not be easily forgotten.
"This is historic. If you decide to go down this path, there will be no going back," Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, told Norment and the newly empowered Senate Republicans. "We are 20-20, and there may be a Democratic lieutenant governor in the future and the shoe will be on the other foot then."
What remained unclear Wednesday was whether the procedural votes that Edwards called "an unconstitutional power grab" would revive a lawsuit McEachin filed in in Richmond Circuit Court last month that sought to restrain Bolling from casting the decisive vote based on the same constitutional issue.
A judge rejected McEachin's request for a temporary restraining order against Bolling, ruling that no harm had occurred because Bolling had not yet voted.
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