The redistricting plan drew national attention, and it was lampooned on cable TV because Republicans had muscled it through the evenly divided Senate when a Democrat regarded as a civil rights leader was away attending President Obama’s inauguration. The measure probably would have passed in the House had it gone to the floor for a vote. But as speaker, Howell had the power to make it go away.
He ended 21
2 weeks of uncertainty with a procedural move and a few words about how he thinks business ought to be conducted in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol. “I am committed to upholding the honor and traditions of both the office of Speaker, the institution as a whole and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said in a statement.
Howell’s decision angered some Republicans, who privately threatened to block the transportation overhaul that he has been pushing with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). At the same time, Democrats were pleased — and suddenly open to a plan they had shot down just the night before.
“We’ll work with the speaker and the House on trying to put together a transportation program,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who added that Howell had displayed “a lot of political courage.”
Senate Republicans said that they were angry but that only Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) would comment. In a written statement, Norment vowed to push for the redistricting plan in future sessions. The map would have created a sixth majority-black district but would have dispersed black votes elsewhere to make at least eight other districts lean more Republican.
“The entire Senate Republican Caucus is deeply disappointed by Speaker Howell’s unilateral ruling today,” Norment said. “. . . [W]e are confident that the districts approved by the Senate on January 21 will be the districts under which the 2015 elections will be conducted.”
From the moment Howell heard about the new Senate map — he was in a meeting with McDonnell about the transportation plan — the speaker worried that it would become a distraction. He also suspected that the measure was out of order, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss private conversations.
But he did not want to act hastily. So he and his staff pored over 30 years of legislative rulings and turned to the state Capitol’s parliamentary bible: a leather-bound first edition of Thomas Jefferson’s “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice.”
Howell, a Baptist who participates in a Capitol Bible study group on Wednesday mornings at 7, also turned to the real Bible. “Frankly, I think a lot of if it has been reflecting and praying,” a person close to him said.