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.
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.
"Asking people to vote on an issue that they placed in front of this body is not bullying anybody," Griffith said in a fiery floor speech. "Somehow, we have gotten the whole thing backward. We have people standing on this floor thinking that not taking a vote is supporting democracy. I have never heard such philosophical tripe in my entire life and my entire time here in this House of Delegates. . . . I just can't believe this."
Republicans say Democrats introduce bills to please constituents but then assume they will die in committee and never come to the floor for a vote. In recent weeks, dozens of bills about abortion, taxes, capital punishment and illegal immigration have been referred to the Rules Committee, and they could be sent directly to the floor.
Ebbin said he wanted to amend the bill to make it clear that government employees do not have the right to strike and for it to be heard in a full committee and get a full debate. "I would say it's not political reasons why I want to strike this bill but rather political reasons why the majority is putting a bill on the floor today," he said.
Republicans forced a vote on Ebbin's bill. Fifty-seven legislators voted against the bill, with all but two Democrats refraining from voting after Armstrong asked them not to.
"What I just witnessed in this body, I would submit, is an actual lack of courage," Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said.
Griffith then called out almost every Democrat's name and asked that a vote against the bill on their behalf be recorded. The final vote was 0 to 82.
After the House adjourned, Democrats went behind closed doors for a hastily called meeting, during which they gave their party leaders a standing ovation with repeated applause.
"We were not going to participate in their shenanigans," said Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), chairman of the Democratic caucus. "This has everything to do with standing up to the traditions and civilities of this house. We stood together, and we are not going to have any of their partisan nonsense."