GOP Fears Va. Impasse Could Hurt At Polls
Monday, May 15, 2006
RICHMOND -- Republicans in Virginia's General Assembly are growing fearful that voters could become frustrated with their party's recent failures to complete state budgets on time and take out their anger at the polls.
Many worry that Democrats are poised to use the Virginia GOP's years-long intraparty feud over taxes and spending as a potent political tool to argue that Republicans are too divided to govern.
"Republicans are in control, and this battle in leadership is within the Republican Party," Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) said. "The Democrats, even though they may see some political opportunity in it, are basically bystanders, onlookers. It's something we need to sort out as Republicans. Ultimately, if we don't sort it out in a timely manner, we won't remain the majority party."
Although senators and delegates will not face election until next year, the fear of blame now has some Republicans antsy to wrap up the budget dispute between the GOP-controlled House of Delegates and Senate before a doomsday July 1 deadline, when a new fiscal year begins and the state faces the possibility of a government shutdown.
At the same time, party leaders in the House and Senate are strategizing ways to protect themselves, hopeful that Virginians can be persuaded to distinguish among Republicans when deciding who is at fault for the deadlock. They anticipate voters could finally choose a direction for the party and help heal the divide in the 2007 primary elections.
Republicans are firmly in control of both the Senate and House, and it would take a major upheaval at the polls to shift power to the Democrats in a single election. But in the eight years since Republicans took over the state legislature, lawmakers have ground through three precedent-breaking budget stalemates, each more bitter than the last. Democratic victories in the past few years have eroded the GOP majorities.
This year, Senate Republicans have argued that the state must raise taxes to provide a regular stream of cash for transportation improvements. House Republicans say there is no need for a tax increase while the state is experiencing a record budget surplus. The two chambers were supposed to end their legislative session March 11 but have yet to agree on a new two-year budget.
The politics of stalemate has become particularly complicated for Republicans in the Senate, who have stood shoulder to shoulder this year with Democrats in the assembly and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), arguing that decaying roads need about $1 billion in new funding yearly through higher taxes.
Hanger is one of several Republicans in the Senate who is urging his colleagues to find a way out by acceding to House demands that a budget include no new taxes. Such a strategy would mean acknowledging that the Senate has lost its fight to win major new funding for transportation projects but hoping that the House would be held responsible by drivers upset over traffic.
"I think most of the Senate members are inclined to do that sooner rather than later," said Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), another who favors the idea.
It is not clear whether the caucus will agree to the strategy -- or whether Democratic senators, who control 17 of 40 seats and often vote with the GOP-- would go along. They may feel little incentive to sign on to a budget that could resolve the dispute before July 1, when party leader Kaine has promised to step in and to keep government running.
"When you don't have the power, you can't really be blamed for anything," said Stephen J. Farnsworth, an associate professor of political science at Mary Washington University. "It's the first rule of politics: When the other party is shooting itself in the foot, get out of the way."