GOP takes control of Virginia General Assembly

RICHMOND — Republicans seized control of an equally divided Senate on the first day of the General Assembly session Wednesday, relying on arcane maneuvers to take over the last part of the state government they didn’t already control.

All Democrats could do was deliver speeches about fairness and threaten to go to court — again.

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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.

Legislators will spend much of the session considering thousands of bills and passing an $85 billion, two-year budget. But Wednesday was marked by pomp and circumstance in the historic, white-columned structure reverently referred to as “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol’’ as members spent most of the day awaiting the fight over control in the Senate.

The House welcomed 15 new delegates, and the Senate six new members. Family and friends of the newly elected crowded into the ornate chambers, along with retiring members, including Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington).

The newly sworn legislators proceeded with the niceties of a new session, with veterans rising to formally introduce freshmen — and their spouses, children and other relatives.

House delegates unanimously reelected William J. Howell (R-Stafford) as speaker. He promptly announced the shuffling of committee assignments — one of the most anticipated announcements as a new session begins — which unlike in the Senate, are based on proportion to the entire body.

The day kicked off with a prayer breakfast at the Richmond convention center attended by about 1,000 and headlined by McDonnell, Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.

Prayers were offered for lawmakers and others, including Virginia’s judiciary, which is likely to be drawn into the Senate battle.

A few dozen protesters rallied in the rain off Capitol Square, saying they hoped to remind legislators to represent their constituents, not lobbyists and campaign donors. They chanted and held homemade signs that said: “Listen to Voters . . . We are Virginia.’’

Among the rules changes Republicans were pushing: doing away with a requirement that committee membership reflect, as nearly as possible, the proportional party makeup of the Senate as a whole.

An even more arcane but potentially consequential change would remove a requirement that motions be phrased in the affirmative. That way, a motion that might die on a 20-20 tie vote could be cast in the negative and fail on a tie vote.

“Even a non-math major like myself can figure out that 20-20 means equally divided,’’ Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) said.

The last time the chamber was equally divided, Democrats, who had 20 senators and the lieutenant governor, intended to rely on it to control the chamber. But Sen. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a Democrat who later switched parties while serving in Congress, would not agree to the reorganization unless Republicans shared power in the chamber. The two parties shared control for four years.

Senators spent hours Wednesday arguing over the legality of Bolling’s vote, but Norment said he would not engage in a constitutional debate on the floor.

During the last few weeks, the squabbling had already prompted the clerk to postpone decisions on office space and seating arrangements in the chamber. It even delayed the selection of which schoolchildren would serve as pages.

“We are going to try to work cooperatively and fairly but we are not going to abdicate the responsibility given to us by the voters of Virginia,’’ Norment said.

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