Speaker's Diplomacy Pays Off in Roads Plan

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) used gentle persuasion to get delegates to buy into the plan.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) used gentle persuasion to get delegates to buy into the plan. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

RICHMOND -- Last summer, Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate President John H. Chichester almost forced a government shutdown when the two Republicans couldn't agree on a budget compromise that involved higher taxes for transportation.

This year, however, Howell has charted a new path for House Republicans, requiring many conservative delegates to swallow voting for some tax and fee increases to pay for road and transit projects.

Howell took the rare step of sponsoring the bill, despite concerns from staff members that his reputation and possibly his leadership post could be at risk if it failed. He even became the first speaker in two decades to testify before the Senate Finance Committee in favor of a bill.

"I just thought it was important for people to realize I was putting my full effort behind it," said Howell (Stafford).

The gesture, along with weeks of behind-the-scenes strategizing, symbolized Howell's role in helping Republicans break through legislative gridlock and approve an election-year transportation plan that could pump as much as $1.5 billion a year into projects across the state.

Even though Democrats and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) say the plan is insufficient, it could boost Republicans' political fortunes and help repair Howell's battered image, a consequence of years of feuding over tax increases with two successive Democratic governors and moderate Republicans in the Senate.

As many political observers see it, Howell is maturing into the leadership role he took on four years ago, which could help the speaker boost his influence.

"He clearly had his hands on the controls and produced, so he has renewed clout and stature," said Charlie Davis, who has been a statehouse lobbyist for nearly three decades. "It finally dawned on the Republican leadership: They had to be less reserved and more aggressive. . . . They had to get involved in the mix."

Howell, 63, will be in the spotlight for at least another month as his conservative, anti-tax style of politics clashes with Kaine's desire to achieve a more comprehensive solution to pay for new roads and mass transit.

The GOP plan calls for regional taxes and fees in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, although local officials must approve them to spend the money in their own area. The plan also calls for a statewide $10 increase in vehicle registrations, higher taxes on diesel fuel and borrowing $2.5 billion, as well as land use reforms.

Kaine said he plans to amend the Republican-backed bill, perhaps to include additional taxes and fees, so less money is diverted from other government services. Howell says House Republicans, many of whom feel they've already compromised enough, aren't likely to agree to any more tax or fee increases when they reconvene April 4. If the House balks, Kaine says he might veto the bill.

Political brinksmanship is nothing new to the speaker, who has developed a reputation for being politically aloof and stubborn.

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