Va. Senate Democrats' Edge Little Comfort

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

RICHMOND -- Ever since they lost the state Senate in 2007, Republicans have been trying to wrangle power back and return the General Assembly to full GOP control.

Last week, they thought their months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering had finally paid off when a Democratic senator agreed to vote to give Republicans more clout in the Senate. But hours later, Sen. Ralph S. Northam of Norfolk backed down under withering pressure from fellow Democrats, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Still, the brazen attempt at a power grab signaled that Democrats, who hold a 21 to 19 seat advantage, have a tenuous grip on the chamber after just their second year of majority rule this decade.

That has meant Democrats in the Senate have lacked the political muscle to pass progressive initiatives, such as doubling the tax on cigarettes and imposing restrictions on firearms sales at gun shows.

Senate leaders, led by Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), said they are fighting to hold together a caucus that has deep geographical and ideological differences -- African Americans from Richmond and Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia liberals, and moderates from the southwest, some of whom represent Republican-leaning districts.

Saslaw has vowed to rule from the center, but the slightest dissension within the party's ranks can stall its agenda and embolden the Republican opposition.

Northam, who describes himself as conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues, said it has been difficult being a moderate in the Democratic caucus.

"Working the middle, being a moderate, is sometimes a little bumpy,'' he said. "It's a lot easier to be out on one side or the other."

Last month, he broke with his party over judicial appointments, including some that had been contested for almost a year. He began talking with the GOP leaders out of frustration with budget cuts to facilities in his district, including a children's hospital and a medical school.

Democratic senators downplay last week's incident, saying it's no longer a concern. "It's over,'' said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), the Democratic caucus chairwoman. "It's resolved."

But the party's vulnerability has led Republicans to spend the better part of a year trying to persuade fringe Democrats, including Northam and perhaps Sen. John C. Miller (D-Newport News), to switch parties, or at least align with the Republicans on certain issues, according to several GOP sources.

"We'd be delighted to have one or two of those guys come over and join our caucus,'' said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who presides over the Senate. "Frankly, there are a couple members of that caucus that have far more in common with the Republican caucus."

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