By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007; B01
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.
Last month, when Chichester (Northumberland) and other senators tried to scuttle the transportation proposal, Howell vowed to keep fighting for it.
"He made that call: 'Let's go forward,' " House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said.
The Senate narrowly approved the bill despite Kaine's and Chichester's objections. To win approval in the more conservative House, Howell had to harness his unruly Republican caucus of 58 delegates, many of whom had signed pledges not to raise taxes. In the end, all but six voted for the plan.
"He expended a lot of capital," Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said.
Unlike past speakers, who have ruled their caucus through intimidation and backroom deals, GOP delegates said Howell used gentle persuasion to get them to buy into the plan.
"He didn't twist arms beyond a reasonable level. He emphasized that the people of Virginia are demanding we do something about transportation. There were no threats," said Lacey E. Putney (Bedford), an independent who meets with the House Republicans.
Putney, who was a Democrat when he took office in 1962, added, "Past speakers wouldn't have hesitated to remind a member of his committee assignment and who made the committee assignment."
Even Democrats, who are hoping to pick up seats this fall, say Howell scored a big personal victory. "If you are looking at it strictly from a political maneuvering and political success, yeah, he gets credit," said House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry).
But Armstrong and other Democrats are critical of the plan, saying it doesn't produce enough revenue, probably won't be enacted by local governments and diverts too much money from other critical services, such as education.
"This thing is all about politics. It has nothing to do with fixing our highway problems," Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. "Bill's a nice guy, but I won't go beyond that."
A devout Christian who teaches Sunday school, Howell was first elected in 1987 after a career as a lawyer and banker.
In the House, Howell quickly became known for his folksy personality and flashes of potent humor, which earned him many friends on both sides of the aisle.
When former Speaker S. Vance Wilkins resigned amid scandal in 2002, GOP delegates settled on Howell as the next speaker in part because of his reputation as a family man. After becoming speaker, Howell formed the nonprofit Virginia Reform Initiative to foster what he has described as a "low-tax, pro-economic growth" style of government.
But Howell's efforts to revamp Virginia government have been stymied. Since he became speaker, Republicans have lost seven House seats, including five in Northern Virginia.
"His focus is on policy and trying to advance his principles rather than simply playing a political game," said Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims, a former state senator and Howell's longtime friend.
In 2004, then-Gov. Mark Warner (D) forced a debate on taxes and steamrolled Howell by convincing 17 House Republicans to support the plan.
Still reeling from the 2004 budget fight, Howell held firm last year that the House wasn't going to cave to pressure from Kaine or Chichester to raise taxes to pay for road and mass transit improvements.
"It takes a while to learn the job and how to use your power effectively to get results," said Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R). "This year, he felt he needed to use every resource available to him as speaker to get the job done."
In October, as it became increasingly clear that Democrats could unseat then-U.S. Sen. George Allen (R), Howell instructed several House Republicans to develop a new transportation proposal.
Even so, some of the state's most powerful leaders had to step in to keep the process moving. On the day before Thanksgiving, Howell met with Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thomas M. Davis III at the speaker's cabin overlooking the Rappahannock River.
"We said, 'Bill, we have in Northern Virginia a critical need that we really have to address,' " Wolf recalled.
But Howell had limited influence with the Senate, which forced party leaders to rely on McDonnell to bring the two sides together.
With new discussions now possible with the governor, Howell says he won't need a mediator this time.
"We both want to get transportation behind us," Howell said of Kaine, recounting a brief meeting he had with the governor two weeks ago. "It's been a huge 800-pound gorilla we have all been dealing with, and it's good to get it behind us and move on to other things."