Va. House speaker is expected to kill GOP Senate redistricting plan

The GOP scored 33 more seats in the House this election even though Democrats earned a million more votes in House races. Professor Jeremy Mayer says gerrymandering distorts democracy. (The Fold/The Washington Post)
February 5, 2013

House Speaker William J. Howell intends to use a procedural move to kill the GOP’s surprise Senate redistricting plan Wednesday, according to several people familiar with his plans.

Howell (R-Stafford) is expected to rule that the new Senate map radically altered the legislation to which it was attached, according to three legislators and a Capitol staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about private discussions involving the speaker.

“There are no guarantees in this business, but the expectation is” that Howell will rule the measure not germane Wednesday, a lawmaker said.

Howell spokesman Matthew Moran said Tuesday night that he could not comment on whether the speaker was prepared to rule against the measure, which is slated to appear on the House calendar Wednesday. “The Speaker will rule on any questions regarding the legislation when they are raised on the floor,” Moran wrote in an e-mail.

As speaker, Howell can decide whether the redistricting plan is germane to the legislation to which it was attached. If he rules that it isn’t, he would kill the measure and rid the General Assembly of an issue that has inflamed partisan tensions and threatened to derail Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s bid for a standout legacy in his last year in office. The distraction that resulted from the redistricting bill has made some Democrats less inclined to vote for the Republican governor’s signature transportation funding plan.

An analysis of the Republican proposal to redraw the Virginia state Senate districts.

Taking up a bill that called for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, Senate Republicans amended it on the floor Jan. 21 to redraw the entire Senate map. The bill creates a sixth majority-black district but disperses the black vote elsewhere to make at least eight other districts more heavily Republican.

Senate Republicans said the new maps would correct gerrymandered districts that Democrats pushed through in 2011 when they controlled the chamber. 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.

Democrats were also upset because Republicans muscled the plan through the now evenly divided chamber on Martin Luther King Day, when a Democrat who is considered a civil rights icon was away in Washington to attend President Obama’s inauguration.

Two black House Democrats signaled last week that they might vote for the redistricting plan. Although they objected to the way Republicans pulled it off, they said they liked the idea of creating another majority-black district. Their support could have made it easier for Howell and McDonnell to support the map by providing a measure of bipartisan backing and blunting complaints that the legislation had been handled in a racially insensitive way.

But backlash from unions and other Democratic campaign supporters led the black delegates to back away from the map.

The new map could give Republicans control of the Senate for decades to come. But Democratic anger over it could also make it more difficult for McDonnell and Howell to push through their transportation plan, which died in the Senate on a party line vote Tuesday but remains alive in the House.

The Senate map caught McDonnell and Howell by surprise and put them in a political quandary. Both have the power to kill the measure, the governor with a veto and the speaker by ruling it not germane.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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