By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; B01
RICHMOND, Jan. 19 -- Members of the Virginia General Assembly said this was the year they needed to rise above petty political differences to make the necessary painful choices on government spending during the worst recession in a generation.
But they spent their first week in session beset by partisan bickering and testy floor fights. They fought over the seating of a just-elected Democratic delegate and introduced dozens of bills intended for partisan gain -- limiting fundraising, changing election laws, calling for an independent redistricting commission. A Democratic plan to allow early voting died in a House subcommittee Monday on a party-line vote.
At the root of the tension is an inescapable aspect of the 45-day legislative session that began last week: It's an election year.
The intersection of legislative duties and elections occurs in Virginia every two years, but those two elements are expected to clash like never before because of an unprecedented effort by both parties to gain advantage for the fall.
Democrats are preparing a massive effort to regain control of the House of Delegates, which has been in Republican hands since 1999. If Democrats can achieve that goal and keep a Democrat in the governor's mansion, the party will have total control over state government for the first time since 1993.
"There is this mood, this feeling in the air. I can feel a much more aggressive passion to get control," said Del. Paul F. Nichols (D-Prince William). "We feel there is . . . light at the end of the tunnel."
Republicans, tired of losing statewide races, vow not to cede any more ground to Democrats. Instead, Republicans say they will be the party on the offense, targeting Democratic incumbents in the House and pouring money into Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell's campaign for governor.
"They are going to see a new Republican Party in 2009," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who is running for reelection.
The stakes are higher this year than most. Legislators must cut at least $3 billion from the state's two-year, $77 billion budget, which will require deep reductions in vital government services such as health care.
Leaders of both parties have pledged to work together to find a solution to the shortfall. But Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a candidate for governor, said, "You can bet when there is a big election, it's going to have an impact" on how much is accomplished.
Delegates spent the first three days fighting over the refusal of House Republican leaders to seat Democrat Charniele Herring, the certified winner of an Alexandria area election last week, and the passage of a bill aimed at the Democrats' annual fundraiser.
House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said politics and the looming elections are interfering "with our getting things done."
"We're ignoring a lot of needs in this state," Armstrong said. "There is behavior like children around here sometimes."
All 100 House seats are up for election, but Democrats will be concentrating on the 15 Republicans in districts that President-elect Barack Obama carried in the fall, including several in increasingly left-leaning Northern Virginia.
Democrats have won 11 seats since 2003 and need to win six more to take control of the House. They plan to raise at least $4 million for the races this fall.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, whom Obama tapped to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told legislators and Democratic donors in a recent conference call that Obama wants to pour national party resources into Virginia this year. Kaine said Obama understands that state elections in Virginia will be a key test of how the public views his administration.
The marquee House race this year will probably take place in southern Fairfax County.
Democrat Greg Werkheiser is set to announce this week that he will run against Del. David B. Albo (R) in a rematch of a bitter 2005 contest.
Albo won by fewer than 1,000 votes, and the Springfield-based district has favored Democrats in recent years. Obama won the district with 57 percent of the vote.
"I'm a wiser candidate this time, and the district has changed significantly. It has become more moderate while the incumbent has become much more conservative to please his leadership," said Werkheiser. He said he expects that both candidates will spend at least $1 million to reach out to the district's 75,000 residents.
Albo said Werkheiser, who lives in Springfield, also owns a house in Petersburg and often works outside the district. "I am the one who grew up in the district, lives in the district and works in the district," Albo said. "I am the one who is in touch."
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) is preparing an aggressive defense of targeted Republicans, his advisers said. He plans to back challengers against the seven Democrats who represent districts won by Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in the presidential election.
In an effort to soften their image, House Republicans agreed this year to a number of rule changes. They will now record votes taken in subcommittee meetings, during which many bills are killed. And they will allow live video of their floor sessions.
Howell also plans a national fundraising effort that seeks to raise at least $4 million after the session. He plans to target Armstrong, who represents a district that McCain carried easily. This month, Howell appointed Armstrong to the Virginia State Crime Commission, forcing him to make tough votes.
"It's 'gotcha' politics," Armstrong said.
Democrats suffered a major setback last week when Republican Joe Murray came within 16 votes of defeating Democrat Charniele Herring in a special election in Alexandria. That fueled a bitter dispute in Richmond, where Republican leaders refused to seat Herring, the certified winner, pending a recount.
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said the close outcome in such an overwhelmingly Democratic district should be a "wake-up call" for Democrats.