It was a sharp contrast from 1996, the last time the chamber was split 20-20 and both parties agreed to share power — albeit only because a Democrat threatened to defect if his party didn’t. The Republicans’ carefully calibrated legislative maneuvers on Wednesday were more emblematic of the partisanship that has surfaced on both sides in Congress as well as other state legislatures, such as Ohio and Wisconsin.
“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,” Sen. Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), the new majority leader, told Democrats. “If you chose not to accept the legislative hand of friendship, I would be disappointed.”
Democrats disagreed. “What is happening is the systematic dismantling of rules that could be used to help us rule in a fair way,” Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) said.
Republicans now also hold a 68-seat majority in the 100-member House of Delegates — the highest in Virginia history, giving the party sway over the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for only the second time since the Civil War.
By day’s end, the GOP acquired greater power through a raft of rule changes that not only mean they chair all committees but also allows them to have greater say over school funding, transportation and social issues, among others. Republicans now have the votes to approve legislation that would limit abortions and ease gun laws, which have been previously blocked by Senate Democrats.
Republicans and Democrats have been fighting over control of the Senate since the GOP picked up two seats in November’s elections, leaving the chamber with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, can cast tie-breaking votes, tilting power to the GOP.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) filed a lawsuit in December seeking to block Bolling from voting on certain matters, including questions of Senate organization. A Richmond Circuit Court judge turned down his request for an injunction.
McEachin, a lawyer who has led the Democrats’ effort to thwart a GOP takeover, told reporters Wednesday that his lawyers were “on standby” but at the end of the day Democrats had not gone to court. “Stay tuned,’’ he said.
In his annual State of the Commonwealth Address on Wednesday night, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) urged legislators to be civil and thanked Senate Democrats for their passionate and statesman-like argument.
“This session we must remember that while seating charts and committee assignments may have changed, the Virginia Way cannot. To the members in the majority I say: Don’t be arrogant. Don’t overreach. To the members in the minority: Don’t be angry. Don’t obstruct. To all of us: Let’s be civil and productive,’’ he told them.