Even though they were in close contact, Saslaw was not sure where Howell stood on the bill, which the speaker could kill with a procedural move. And with good reason.
Howell and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) are conflicted about how to get out of a mess that members of their party had thrust them into, according to two Republicans and a Democratic senator familiar with their thinking but not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
The governor and speaker are said to be struggling over whether to advance the plan or kill it. If they opt to do it in, the question becomes whether Howell should dispatch it by way of a parliamentary ruling or McDonnell by way of a veto.
“They just don’t know what they’re going to do yet,” said a GOP strategist familiar with their thinking. “They’re human beings, just handed this proposal.”
As the governor and speaker try to decide on a course, Saslaw has been appealing to Howell, his political opponent but friend.
“Dick thinks maybe this can be settled short of a confrontation,” said a Democratic senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly.
McDonnell, Howell and Saslaw all declined to comment on their conversations.
The redistricting shocker that Senate Republicans sprang on unsuspecting Democrats came as no less a surprise to McDonnell and Howell.
The plan has the potential to give Republicans greater sway over the now evenly divided Senate — something the speaker and governor would normally welcome. But it also threatens to derail a proposed transportation-funding overhaul, which is central to McDonnell’s bid for the sort of grand legacy that can set a governor on a path to the White House.
The House is considering legislation that Senate Republicans muscled through Monday. Taking up a bill that called for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, they amended it on the floor to make changes to all of the Senate’s 40 districts.
Republicans said the new maps would correct gerrymandered districts that Democrats pushed through in 2011 when they controlled the Senate. Democrats said the plan runs afoul of the state constitution, which specifies that redistricting take place after the decennial census in years ending in one.
The new map, which would take effect in 2015, creates an additional majority-black district in Southside but also disperses the black vote elsewhere, making other districts more heavily Republican.
If McDonnell and Howell kill the map, they could enrage fellow Republicans — a group already wary of their transportation plan, which would eliminate the gas tax but raise the sales tax and certain fees.