Secret Talks Seek Unity For Feuding Va. GOP

Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell has brought House and Senate leaders together for talks, according to participants.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell has brought House and Senate leaders together for talks, according to participants. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

RICHMOND, Dec. 28 -- Top Republicans in Virginia, including the state's attorney general and the party's former national chairman, have been holding secret meetings for weeks in the hopes of finding an end to the war among their party's lawmakers and reaching a compromise on funding for transportation, several participants said.

Some of the party's biggest names from outside the General Assembly fear that the rift between leaders in the GOP-led House of Delegates and state Senate will cause Republicans to lose big in elections in November, especially in Northern Virginia, unless something is done to ease congestion.

Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell has brought both sides together for direct talks. U.S. Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf have met with House leaders to urge action. And Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the National Republican Committee, who took the helm of the Virginia GOP this month, is courting both senators and delegates.

"We're just saying you need a deal and it's got to be something substantive. The inability to reach an agreement blows back on everybody," Davis said Thursday. "Instead of pointing fingers, we're trying to get everyone to understand what's at stake."

The meetings were confirmed by Davis, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) and Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax). Several other participants discussed the meetings but said they did not want to be identified because the meetings were private. Others who were briefed about them also discussed the meetings but did not want to be named because they did not attend.

Participants said the talks are an attempt to spur action in next month's Assembly session, which is expected to again be dominated by transportation. This year, deadlock over road and rail funding held up a state budget for months and prompted a special session that ended in failure.

Those involved in the meetings said the refusal to come together to confront the transportation crisis is becoming the kind of issue for Virginia Republicans that the war in Iraq has become for the GOP nationally: one that pushes independents and moderates to the other side of the political aisle.

The chasm between the two wings of the party is based partly on an ideological divide over taxes -- Senate Republicans want them, House Republicans do not. The resulting perception is of Washington-style gridlock that two Democratic governors have used to blame the GOP and that has helped Democrats gain six seats in the House in the past three years.

The rift is also fostered by personal dislike. A GOP senator once called House Republican budget negotiators "dumb as rocks." House GOP leaders often deride their Senate counterparts as arrogant, patronizing and mean.

Sources in both camps expressed some optimism that the talks have helped. But getting both sides to compromise after more than five years at each other's throats is proving difficult. No agreements have been reached, they said.

"It's like marriage counseling, and transportation is the adulterous affair," said one Republican familiar with the meetings but not authorized to talk about them. "If you don't deal with that first, nothing else matters."

McDonnell, his deputy and his pollster met with five top Republicans in the House and Senate on Dec. 5 and on Dec. 15, according to several participants and others briefed on the meetings. If the party war continues, participants said McDonnell's pollster told both sides, Republicans could easily lose their majority.

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