Virginia Republicans intend to wrest the last shred of power from Democrats as the General Assembly session gets underway Wednesday in Richmond.
The GOP, which already had the House and governor’s mansion, plans to take control of the evenly divided Senate with help from Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) and his power to break tie votes.
Democrats, who contend that Bolling’s voting authority is limited and that Senate power should be shared, intend to fight Republicans off with arcane parliamentary maneuvers and a lawsuit
Wednesday kicked off with a prayer breakfast at the Richmond convention center attended by about 1,000 people and headlined by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Rep. Frank R. Wolf.
Prayers were offered for lawmakers and others, including Virginia’s judiciary, which is likely to be drawn into the Senate battle.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), who has led the Democrats’ effort to thwart a GOP takeover, told reporters Wednesday morning that his lawyers were “on standby.”
Members of the Virginia Legislative Black caucus, Democrats all, declared at a morning news conference that they would push hard for their agenda even given the GOP’s record-high advantage in the House and the GOP intention to take control of the Senate.
“We’re a minority within a minority,” said Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton). “But we’ve been minorities all our lives. We can deal with it. So bring it on.”
Senators will have to sort out that unfinished business from November’s elections before they can get down to work on McDonnell’s first two-year budget and his fat agenda, which includes plans for spurring job growth, making schools more accountable, shoring up the state retirement system and easing traffic woes.
“It will be a challenging start to the Senate,” Bolling said Tuesday. “We’ll have some key votes that have to be taken on the organization of the Senate, and I suspect that there'll be some spirited debate about those organizational motions, but we’ll get through them.”
McDonnell gathered Republican delegates and senators on the South Portico of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon and urged them to work collegially with Democrats.
“I think I can speak for all the distinguished men and women behind me to say that while we have a majority, we will not be arrogant, we will not overreach, we will not lose focus on creating jobs, improving our quality of life for our citizens and, ultimately, solving problems,” McDonnell said. “We’ll be civil, but we’ll be passionate about the things Republicans and conservatives believe in for the future of our state.”
McEachin (D-Richmond) seemed to take offense at McDonnell’s call for civility, inferring that it had been aimed at Democrats.
“Why is it that just because we disagree, we’re not being civil?” McEachin said.
McEachin filed a lawsuit in December seeking to block Bolling from voting on certain matters, including Senate organization and the budget. Bolling conceded last week that he lacks authority to vote on the budget, but reaffirmed his intention to vote on organization.
The organizational votes are likely more important than the budget variety, since determining the makeup of Senate committees essentially determines which bills make it to the floor for a vote, said A.E. Dick Howard, a constitutional law expert at the University of Virginia.
“Perhaps the lieutenant governor’s not giving too much away,” said Howard, who reviewed 100 years of Senate history and found not a single instance in which there was a tie vote on a budget. “It may well be the ability to vote on organization was, frankly, more important to him.”
A Richmond Circuit Court judge turned down McEachin’s initial request for a temporary injunction to block Bolling from voting on organization, saying it was premature because Bolling had not yet cast such a vote. McEachin has indicated that he will go back to court if and when Bolling votes on such a matter.
Delegates and senators will be sworn in at the historic, white-columned structure reverently referred to as “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.”
Randy Minchew, a Republican delegate-elect from Leesburg, said he was excited to get down to work as a freshman lawmaker. He said he had scuttled plans to introduce a bill to outlaw abortion for purposes of sex selection, at least for the current session.
“As a freshman, it’s probably best I’m not carrying a bill of that magnitude,” he said.
But he planned to sponsor about 20 other bills, which he said were aimed at improving the economic climate and freeing the localities in his district from unfunded state and federal mandates.