Republicans in Virginia push conservative agenda, with bills on guns, gays

February 3, 2012

The Republican revolution is on in Richmond.

Virginia Republicans have aggressively pursued a conservative agenda since taking over all of state government, steamrolling Democrats along the way.

Less than a month into the General Assembly session, Republicans have passed bills expanding gun rights and rolling back abortion rights, gay rights and — at least as Democrats see it — voting rights. Dozens of other bills remain in the works.

Although it’s no surprise that Republicans would go after those issues, the speed with which they have gotten them past floor votes has surprised some Richmond observers.

“There’s a pent-up demand,’’ said former lieutenant governor John Hager, a Republican who presided over the state Senate for four years. “It says who’s in charge.”

Republicans have not gotten everything they wanted — particularly on abortion and guns — but they have managed with relative ease to approve far-reaching bills. Many of the bills passed the House of Delegates for years but always died at the hands of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate.

Now, with the party in control of the upper chamber, and more conservative Republicans part of it, the full Senate voted this week to require women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion. On Monday, it is expected to repeal a two-decade-old law limiting handgun purchases to one per month.

Already out of committee and on their way to full Senate votes: bills to subject welfare recipients to drug testing and allow faith-based adoption agencies to turn away, for religious reasons, gays seeking to adopt children.

But those victories come with risks.

Many Republicans, elected last fall primarily on the economy and jobs, could face a backlash in their districts for pushing social causes. And there is a special drawback in an election year in which many Republican candidates for president and the U.S. Senate will need to court independent voters in the swing state, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

“What they’ve wanted, what they’ve dreamed of, is coming true,” Farnsworth said. “But in the larger electoral context, this may be a very painful course of action if it costs Republicans the presidency or what could be the decisive Senate seat for control of the upper chamber in Washington.”

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican who won decisively by downplaying social issues, has said he would sign the ultrasound and one-gun-a-month repeal measures.

The Republican legislative gains have come in a session that began with Democrats vowing to stop the GOP — with legal action and arcane parliamentary maneuvers — from taking control of the Senate. Both strategies failed. And now Democrats find themselves mostly powerless to stop what they see as Virginia’s hard right turn.

Opposed to bills that would apply stricter standards for identification at polling places, Democrats threw out heated rhetoric this week at a rally and on the floor of the House and Senate. They invoked lynching, Jim Crow, even Stalin. They created a Twitter hashtag for the occasion: #NotOnOurWatch.

But with one voter ID measure passing the House this week and the other on track to clear the Senate on Monday, there was a sense that Democrats were not able to do much more than watch.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) knew Democrats had no chance of derailing the bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions, so she offered a floor amendment that made such a mockery of it that it drew national attention.

“Prior to prescribing medication for erectile dysfunction, a physician shall perform a digital rectal examination and a cardiac stress test,” her amendment read. It died in a 19-21 partisan vote.

Likewise, Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) offered what he conceded was a futile bill to prohibit state-funded adoption agencies from discriminating against gay couples. “I’m an eternal optimist,” he said.

Democrats still have some sway in the Senate, which November’s elections left evenly split, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Republicans claimed the majority because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) can break tie votes in the Senate. Democrats, who contended that Bolling’s voting authority was limited, failed to get a power-sharing deal.

Democrats sued, seeking to block Bolling from voting on key matters of Senate organization, including the committee assignments that determine which bills make it to the floor and which die. The suit is pending, but the judge turned down a request before the session started to issue a temporary injunction blocking the Senate takeover.

Bolling has conceded that his voting power does not extend to the budget, constitutional amendments and judicial appointments — the only areas where Democrats hope to have some power.

Democrats were able to flaunt what power they have in the Senate a week ago, when they held up judicial nominations in a way that also halted the business of the Senate. Republicans eventually blinked, pulling the names of two nominees the Democrats had objected to. But even that victory was fairly empty. Democrats did not, in fact, oppose the nominees, simply the timing of their nominations. The two are expected to be confirmed for the bench by the end of the session.

Even with Republicans in control of both chambers, some of the most conservative bills have died.

A Senate committee has killed two high-profile gun-rights proposals that would have done away with state background checks and prevented colleges from banning firearms on campus. Another committee killed a bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks after a woman testified that she terminated her pregnancy after medical problems.

On Friday, Democrats took to the House floor to bitterly complain about Republicans’ actions in the General Assembly.

“In four weeks, we have been distracted by divisive social issues,’’ House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said. “There have been bills on abortion, bills on guns, bills on gays. . . . This is not what the majority of Virginians elected us to do.”

Republicans shot back in passionate speeches, saying bills on guns and abortion are just a small number of the hundreds of measures that have been debated.

“They only represent a very small portion of the fine work that we have done,’’ House Deputy Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said. “We are, in fact, focused on jobs, creating the economic environment that will bring Virginia back.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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