Upcoming Assembly Session Sets Up Clash of GOP, Kaine

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R) listens as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) speaks at a joint session of the General Assembly.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R) listens as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) speaks at a joint session of the General Assembly. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

RICHMOND -- House Speaker William J. Howell has grown tired of Republicans being blamed for everything that state lawmakers fail to get done. He wants Virginians to know that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and the Democrats share responsibility for any lack of accomplishments.

"To call us the party of obstructionists is a little disingenuous,'' Howell said. "Where things don't get done, don't blame the House Republicans."

A divided General Assembly returns to the Capitol this month for its annual legislative session, and Howell has provided ample evidence that the chamber he controls is unlikely to find much common ground with Democrats. When Kaine announced last month that he would attempt to boost the tax on cigarettes to help the state address a $3 billion budget shortfall, it only took minutes for Howell to reject the idea.

Now, as Kaine enters his fourth and final year in office and seeks to leave his imprint on the state, he could find that his toughest challenge is not buried in this year's daunting budget numbers or on an ambitious list of policy goals, but standing behind the ornate desk in the Virginia House chamber.

Kaine's ability to work with Howell, or maneuver around him, could very well determine whether his year is a success.

The state's most powerful Republican will help determine how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars and write laws on issues that include education, health care and crime.

Howell has spent almost two decades in the House, the past six years as speaker. He has never been one to make a fiery speech, but his members have consistently fallen in step behind him. A six-seat majority gives him the power to determine what bills get heard, control the floor debate and manipulate the chamber's rules to his advantage.

That power helped doom much of Kaine's agenda in 2008. House Republicans killed Kaine's proposals to raise taxes for roads and transit projects, require that gun sellers conduct background checks on buyers at gun shows, and change the way legislative and congressional boundaries are drawn.

That's what prompted Democrats to brand the Republicans as obstructionists.

"They want to block everything the Democrats want to do,'' complained Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "People are sick and tired of this."

The rancor was not new. But last year marked the first time since Reconstruction that different parties had outright control of the House and Senate. Although Republicans shouldered much of the blame for the gridlock, both sides contribute to the problem.

"It's just kind of the way it works with a divided government,'' said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), a former senator who now presides over that chamber. "It doesn't mean the other side is obstructionist just because we don't agree on the right approach."

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