RICHMOND — In a bid for more committee power and more state spending, Senate Democrats killed the only remaining state budget plan Wednesday, a move likely to heighten partisan rancor in the General Assembly and force a special session.
It is possible for a new budget plan — from Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) or one brought forward by lawmakers — to pass before legislators adjourn March 10. But lawmakers said that seems highly unlikely and warned that a partial government shutdown could ultimately result.
Democrats “appear willing to jeopardize the timely payment of the salaries of our teachers and police officers, the services our senior citizens depend upon, the resources our universities need to operate, the budgets of local governments, the funding for our prisons and hospitals, and the entire state budget to gain more power,” McDonnell said in a prepared statement. “They have put political goals of 20 individuals ahead of the collective policy needs of 8 million Virginians.”
Republicans need to flip only one Senate Democrat to win passage. Earlier in the session, Democrats sometimes broke ranks to vote with Republicans on pro-gun and antiabortion legislation. But they’ve stuck together on the budget.
They said their resolve was only strengthened this week when Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) threatened to cut $42 million in Northern Virginia school funding if Democrats killed the budget.
“We’re not going to cave into blackmail,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “And you’re not going to hold the students of Northern Virginia hostage over this.”
But Republicans maintained that Democrats are the hostage-takers, bidding for more power in Richmond’s upper chamber.
“The Senate Republicans are not going to be extorted over bruised political egos,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City).
Committee seats sought
Using the prospect of a deadlocked Senate as leverage, Democrats have been pressing Republicans to revamp some Senate committees, adding more Democrats to certain panels and restructuring the powerful Senate Finance Committee so that it is co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat.
Republicans have refused and accused Democrats of trying to turn the budget process into a power grab. Democrats say they are only trying to correct a power grab pulled off by Republicans at the start of the session, when the GOP changed Senate rules and enlisted the tie-breaking votes of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) to help them stack crucial committees with Republicans.
Bolling’s power limited
November’s elections left the Senate evenly split, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Republicans claimed control of the chamber because Bolling has the authority to break tie votes on some matters. Democrats, who disputed his authority, had sought a power-sharing deal.
Bolling does not have authority to vote on the budget. So when the General Assembly shifted its attention to the spending issues, Democrats suddenly had some power. Up to that point, they had been unable to stop a host of conservative bills, including much-mocked legislation that, before it was softened last week, would have required women seeking an abortion to have an invasive ultrasound involving a vaginal probe.
“All the things that they’re doing, and we’re supposed to just sit back and relax?” Saslaw said. “When we were controlling things, we weren’t the laughingstock of America.”
Republicans have expressed exasperation that Democrats thumbed their noses at the budget after the Senate Finance Committee amended McDonnell’s spending plan to add millions for schools, social services and other Democratic priorities.
“It takes 21 votes, so any single Democrat could show statesmanship and say, ‘This is the budget that I would support,’ ” said Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover).
Not the first time
Richmond has seen its share of budget impasses. But in the other cases — in 2001, 2004 and 2006 — proposed budgets had at least passed the House and Senate. Differences between the two spending plans were in the process of being worked out in conference committees when the General Assembly adjourned.
This time around, there is no budget plan left on the table. If lawmakers fail to adopt a plan by July 1, a partial government shutdown is likely.
Democrats have pointed to specific budget items — and non-items — that they object to, including the fact that no funds were set aside for the Dulles rail project. Saslaw also said that the budget does not provide money to pay for the ultrasounds that women will be required to get before abortions.
But it’s the Democrats’ request for more committee power that has received the most attention.
Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.