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."
Saslaw said he is not worried about Northam or other senators switching parties, but he declined to elaborate. "That's not going to happen," Saslaw said.
After decades of Democratic rule, Republicans and Democrats began sharing power in the Senate in 1996. In 2000, Republicans took full control of the chamber. In 2007, Democrats rode a national anti-Republican wave and flipped the chamber back.
During the period of GOP control, moderate Republicans aligned with Democrats over such hot-button issues as abortion and gun control, as well as on spending and taxes. But after repeated electoral losses, Republicans have become more unified.
"In the last two years, we have tried to take a different approach," Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said. "We try to iron out our differences internally instead of externally."
During the busy midpoint of the legislative session, Norment took Democrats by surprise when he introduced a proposal to add a Republican co-chairman to the two most powerful committees, Finance and Courts of Justice, and add a Republican member to Courts of Justice to ensure an even split between parties.
Northam said he had agreed to vote for the change, which would have split the chamber 20-20 and left Bolling to break the tie in favor of the Republicans.
In Capitol Square, there was mounting buzz about a possible coup in the Senate. Giddy GOP senators shared the news with their colleagues in the House.
Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick of Prince William, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, sent out a message on Twitter: "Big news coming out of Senate: Apparently one dem is either switching or leaving the dem caucus. Negotiations for power sharing underway."
Democrats quickly went behind closed doors, where yelling ensued. Saslaw then escorted Northam to Kaine's office in the nearby Patrick Henry Building for a talk with the governor. Kaine, who is credited with helping Democrats take control of the Senate and now heads the Democratic National Committee, declined to talk about the meeting later, calling it an internal Senate matter.
It was over quickly. When senators returned to the chamber, Norment withdrew his proposal for reorganizing the committees, knowing that he no longer had the votes.
Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a close ally of Norment's, said Republican leaders have never directly asked Northam or another senator to switch parties. But other GOP sources say the offer has been floating for months.
"We are trying to get some balance,'' Stolle said. "We are not grabbing power. It's about good government."