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House Democrats Forced to Vote on Bill

Most Democrats voted to abstain on the collective-bargaining bill. Then, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R) asked that a vote against the bill be recorded on their behalf.
Most Democrats voted to abstain on the collective-bargaining bill. Then, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R) asked that a vote against the bill be recorded on their behalf. (Photos By Bob Brown -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via Associated Press)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

RICHMOND, Jan. 24 -- The Republican-controlled Virginia House erupted into partisan chaos Thursday as angry Democrats contemplated walking out of the chamber but instead abstained from voting on a controversial labor bill.

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In a rare move, the GOP leaders used an obscure House of Delegates rule to force almost all the Democrats to vote, against their wishes, on a collective bargaining bill. The Republicans intended to get the pro-labor Democrats' vote on record to use against them in elections.

Furious Democrats accused Republicans of bullying them as they try to keep tight control over the 100-member chamber in what Democrats dubbed the "tyranny of the House Republican caucus."

"We're being bullied on this side of the aisle," House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said during an hour of angry floor speeches. "More importantly, the public is being bullied."

Countered House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem): "Is it bullying when we do something to you all that makes you all uncomfortable? That's what you're apparently saying."

Since the 60-day General Assembly session began three weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats in the House have bickered over a series of procedural issues that have led to daily power struggles. Democrats gained some seats in the November election, but Republicans still have a 53-44 advantage, with two independents who often vote with them.

Legislators from both parties say the latest fight will only make it more difficult for the two sides to work together for the next five weeks. They are considering a two-year budget and more than 1,000 bills this session on issues that include mental health reform and illegal immigration.

The latest rancor started when Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) introduced a bill on behalf of a Northern Virginia police department that would allow government employees to organize unions. The bill was never expected to pass, but if it had, it would have reversed Virginia's long-standing status as a right-to-work state.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, said the bill was part of a Democratic effort to erode a business climate Republicans have fought hard to create. "House Republicans believe Virginia's status as a right-to-work state is crucial to retaining the vitality of our commonwealth's economy," he said.

Instead of sending the bill to the Commerce and Labor and Appropriations committees, Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) used a new rule that allows him to bypass the usual committees and send the bill to the Republican-controlled Rules Committee.

That committee, which is led by Howell, sent the bill directly to the floor for a vote without any testimony or debate.

Ebbin wrote Howell this week asking for the bill to be withdrawn, a routine request nearly always granted to a bill's sponsor. But Republicans would not let Ebbin do so. Democrats say it was the first time since 1982 that a legislator has not been able to strike his bill.

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