As they threaten to hold up the state budget, Senate Democratic leaders are pushing for a deal to reclaim some of the power that Republicans assumed early this session in the evenly split chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) are seeking to beef up the Democrats’ influence on crucial committees in exchange for passage of the state budget.
The Democrats’ proposal falls short of the full power-sharing deal they’d sought after November’s elections left the chamber evenly divided between the two parties. But it would give them more say on some key committees, which Republicans were able to stack in their favor with help from the tie-breaking votes of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R).
Bolling does not have authority to vote on the budget. Using the prospect of a deadlocked Senate as leverage, Saslaw and McEachin laid out what they called “a reasonable proposal for the committee structure of the Senate” in a letter hand-delivered Friday to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City).
Norment publicly dismissed the Democrats’ effort Tuesday in a letter of his own, which also referenced recent communication between the Democrats and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell about the budget.
“In your joint letter to the Governor of last Wednesday, you articulated that ‘our concerns about the budget are not partisan, but substantive,’” Norment wrote. “Particularly in light of that assertion, it was disheartening to read your letter and see there were absolutely no policy concerns expressed, only raw partisan, political objectives having absolutely nothing to do with the budget. Intellectually, and as a good steward of the Commonwealth, I cannot link the budget to partisan, political pressures.”
Senate Republicans have agreed to amend Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s spending plan to make it more pleasing to Democrats, adding millions for schools and social services and spurning McDonnell’s plan to divert general fund revenues away from education and other core services and toward transportation.
Funding still falls short of what some Democrats would have liked, however. The Senate Finance Committee’s plan would, for instance, restore $42 million of the $65 million in “cost of competing funding” that McDonnell eliminated in his plan. Some Senate Democrats continue to push for the full $65 million, which has been used to attract non-teaching staff to schools in the expensive Northern Virginia jobs market.
On the floor of the Senate Tuesday, Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) ticked off many of the programs that Republicans had agreed to better fund at the request of Democrats. After responding to Democrats’ budget concerns, Republicans said Democrats were wrong to try to use the budget process to grab more power on committees, where the fate of legislation is largely decided.
But Saslaw said the effort was akin to the ordinary horse-trading that goes on in any General Assembly session.
“You know, I could have gotten up just as easily — when what’s-his-name was speaking, McDougle — and said, ‘I see two gun bills by so-and-so, I see an anti-abortion bill by so-and-so,’” Saslaw said. “It’s all part of the system.”
Saslaw and McEachin have asked that more Democrats get appointed to certain committees, that some Republicans get removed, and that leadership of the powerful Senate Finance Committee be split between Republican and Democratic co-chairs.
Their proposal would affect six of the 11 Senate committees. Every committee would continue to be chaired by Republicans, with the exception of the co-chaired finance committee.
Republicans currently have majorities on 10 of the 11 committees. The exception is the Local Government Committee, a panel with relatively little power that Republicans stacked with Democrats. The Democratic leaders have proposed adding one Republican to that committee and removing one Democrat, leaving that panel with eight Democrats and seven Republicans.
Under the Democrats’ plan, the Courts of Justice, Education and Health, and Privileges and Elections committees would each have eight Republicans and eight Democrats. Two Democrats would be added to the Finance Committee, which would still leave the GOP with a nine-eight advantage. It would also add two Democrats and remove one Republican from Commerce and Labor, leaving the panel with nine Republicans and eight Democrats.