GOP Rift Swells in Va. General Assembly

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) says he doesn't believe in
Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) says he doesn't believe in "interfering in people's personal lives" and is moderate on the immigration issue. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 16 -- The Virginia Senate has rejected efforts by House Republicans to crack down on illegal immigration and limit abortions, exposing a widening gap within the GOP over how far the party should go in addressing controversial issues.

With the legislative session scheduled to end next Saturday, the Republican-controlled Senate and House have staked out dramatically different positions on bills designed to rid the state of illegal immigrants and give fetuses additional state-sanctioned protections.

The debate, which comes as all 140 delegates and senators are up for reelection this year, reflects the Republican Party's struggle nationally to deal with bills relating to abortion and immigration.

The state Senate's actions this week also underscore how the tension in the party goes far beyond the years-long feud between the two chambers over whether higher taxes are needed to pay for transportation improvements.

The House of Delegates, dominated by social conservatives, has approved a number of bills this year that have prompted outrage from many activist groups, including measures to put illegal immigrants in county jails and to make it a felony for a woman to cause her own miscarriage.

Senators, led by moderate Republicans, balked at their House colleagues' actions, saying that the conservatives were driving away moderate and suburban voters who have held the keys to recent statewide elections.

"I'm a moderate Eisenhower-type Republican, and I don't believe in all this interfering in people's personal lives," said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), chairman of the education and health committee. "I'm very, very moderate on the immigration issue."

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) countered, saying that Republicans "are just trying to punish people for breaking the law."

In committee actions this week, the Senate killed bills that would have cut off funding for charities that help illegal immigrants and punished employers who hire illegal immigrants. Senators also rejected legislation that would have made it a state crime for undocumented citizens to live in or travel through Virginia.

The House had also approved several abortion-related bills that had been a priority of the influential Family Foundation, a socially conservative organization. But those bills were largely blocked by Potts's committee. On Thursday, the committee rejected the miscarriage proposal. Legislation to expand the state's informed consent law by requiring that women be given the option of having an ultrasound before an abortion was also rejected.

Although much of the focus this election year has been on Democratic efforts to pick up the four Senate seats needed to regain control, some political specialists say it is just as likely that conservatives will gain seats. A more conservative Senate, they say, could make it easier for immigration and abortion bills to pass the General Assembly next year.

"This could be a very tumultuous year, and you could walk through 100 different outcomes that could have a lot of consequences," said conservative Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax).

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company