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.
McDonnell, who is widely believed to be preparing for a 2009 run for governor, would not confirm Thursday that any meetings took place. But he said he is determined to help his party retain control of the legislature.
"The Republican Party worked for 130 years to take a majority. In the last six, as we have assumed the mantle of governing Virginia, there has been a lot of very public and acerbic disagreements," he said. "I want to make sure our party stays in power and wins in 2007. The way to do that is to have a very productive 2007 session on the key issues that Virginians care about."
Davis participated in McDonnell's Dec. 5 meeting by telephone. Wolf and Davis have met privately with House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to urge action. And Gillespie met with Senate Republicans on Dec. 15 after a breakfast fundraiser.
The meetings reflect a new recognition by some Republicans of the party's vulnerability after last month's elections. Although such incumbents as Davis and Wolf held on, the party's standard-bearer, Sen. George Allen, was defeated, faring especially poorly in Northern Virginia.
"The equation is pretty simple," Davis said. "If they come back empty-handed, the Democrats will say these guys can't deliver transportation. Up here [in Northern Virginia], it's going to be very tough sledding."
Gillespie would not comment on meetings he has had with lawmakers, saying those would be confidential. "I do believe that it's important that Republicans in the House of Delegates and the Senate are seen to be working together," he said in a brief interview.
Devolites Davis, who attended a meeting with Gillespie and senior Senate Republicans, said the new party chairman made it clear he intends to be an honest broker.
"He just wants to bring the party back together," she said. "He understands how bad the traffic is and how strongly people feel. Anyone who is in a leadership position outside the bodies sees how important it is to get something done."
J. Scott Leake, a chief aide to Senate Republicans, said, "What has gone on certainly hasn't hurt and can only help."
Participants in McDonnell's meetings said he and Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims have offered a number of transportation proposals, including tax and fee increases supported by senators and borrowing favored by House Republicans.
Chichester, who said he has met with McDonnell privately in recent weeks, said the talks have not produced any real movement.
"What I gather, nothing is happening," Chichester said. "I think they are honest brokers. But until we get some new money on the table, we haven't really gone anywhere. [The House] is still holding their 'no new revenue' stance."
Griffith called the talks "very cordial" but would not comment specifically because participants were told that the meetings would be kept confidential.
"Clearly there's movement or we wouldn't be talking," he said.