Virginia Republicans try to thwart federal gun, health-care bills

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A01

RICHMOND -- Emboldened by their November sweep, Virginia Republicans are hoping to use their new power in Richmond to press their opposition to President Obama and Democratic policies in Washington.

As the General Assembly prepares to convene Wednesday, Republicans have introduced a series of bills designed to counter federal policy. The state's new Republican attorney general says he is assembling a legal team with an eye to challenging the federal government in court. And Virginia's newly elected Republican governor said he plans to engage actively in a national conversation about limiting Washington's power.

"I think the federal government is out of control," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "There's genuine concern, not just from Republicans, but from people who are just concerned citizens. . . . And I believe the message is clear: We better be paying attention."

One bill lawmakers will consider is a measure to make it illegal to require people to buy health insurance, which is designed to invalidate congressional efforts to mandate insurance coverage.

Another would declare that the federal government has no right to regulate as interstate commerce any good or service produced or performed entirely within Virginia. A third would specify that Washington can't regulate guns that are made and sold in the state.

Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson), who is sponsoring the gun measure, called it a way to "tell the federal government that we don't want your dictatorship to interfere with our Second Amendment rights."

"Dictatorship might be a little harsh," he allowed when asked about the phrase. "But socialism isn't."

The anti-Washington sentiment is playing out in other states where Republicans are in charge. Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) said last week that his state will sue the federal government over Democratic health-care legislation if it becomes law.

Virginia's outgoing attorney general, William C. Mims, joined his counterparts in South Carolina, Colorado, Alabama and nine other states in sending a letter to congressional leaders late last month with the same pledge.

And, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, members of at least 18 legislatures are submitting bills that would oppose or limit all or parts of federal health-care reform efforts.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) wrote a column posted to a state Web site Monday calling for a constitutional amendment requiring that the federal government pass a balanced budget.

Such stances could pressure Democratic leaders in Washington and frighten members of Congress facing reelection in November. The action in Virginia could be particularly potent, given that Republicans were overwhelmingly elected in November, it's a swing state and it's just across the Potomac River from Washington.

Republican Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell, who will be sworn into office Saturday to replace Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), said he supports legislative efforts designed to counter the growing reach of the federal government.

"Expressing the sense of the Virginia General Assembly that they believe the 10th Amendment means what it says, and that powers not reserved to the Congress are reserved to the states, that's a statement absolutely useful to be made," McDonnell said Friday.

Attorney General-elect Ken Cuccinelli II also said last week that he is building an office that can fight federal overreach, including a possible challenge to health-care legislation. "We are keeping a very close eye on that and have been for a number of weeks," he said.

Potential risks of strategy

Republicans say that they are responding to the sentiments of a disgruntled electorate and that their efforts could help shape public opinion as congressional midterm elections approach. At least three Democratic congressmen in Virginia will face fierce GOP challenges in November.

But there are risks. If the measures pass, there are questions about whether they are constitutional or would be preempted by federal law. Carrico's gun bill is modeled on a similar measure passed last year in Montana, where it is the subject of litigation from gun control advocates.

Republicans also risk alienating voters if they seem to be primarily focused on politics at a time when many Virginians are out of work and the state is facing a $4 billion budget shortfall. A reputation for focusing on issues outside the control of the state legislature could be particularly troublesome for a party that has promised to rededicate itself to solving everyday problems.

Democrats say that debating Washington is a waste of time when Virginia faces its own serious problems. They will also cite the bills as evidence that the GOP has become beholden to the Obama-bashing right.

"Let's just put a fence around the place and call it a zoo," said Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D-Northumberland), who was reelected in November by defeating an activist from the conservative Tea Party.

The right has "absolute total control of that party, lock, stock and barrel," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), majority leader in the Virginia senate, where Democrats have a one-vote majority. "These bills aren't intended for the general public -- they're throwing red meat to their supporters."

Some Democrats acknowledged the political potency of the anti-Washington fervor.

"Has the Earth shifted over the last 12 months?" Saslaw asked. "Yes, it has. Who could deny that? But to what extent has it shifted? No one knows."

In November, voters ended eight years of Democratic gains in Virginia, electing McDonnell governor and Cuccinelli, a conservative state senator, attorney general. The GOP also picked up seats in the House of Delegates.

Many Republicans say they think McDonnell's win over state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) came as independent voters became disenchanted with Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in four decades.

"These people turned out in force in November," Howell said. "I hope the Democrats dismiss them and say they're a bunch of kooks, because they do so at their own peril. If they didn't learn it last fall, they'll learn it this fall."

A message to Congress

During a campaign that is being examined as a Republican model for success nationally, McDonnell stoked anger at Washington, promising to stand up to federal policies that he thought would kill jobs in Virginia, including legislation to curb emissions, changes to health care and new protections for unions.

McDonnell said he thinks that the discussion is a bipartisan one but that the problem has been exacerbated in the past year.

"This will be an important theme over the next few years with governors around the country," he said. "I intend to be an active participant, because I believe some of these bills that have been proposed are not good for the people of Virginia."

Supporters of the efforts say their message would not be diluted, even if they are struck down by courts.

"It's really anybody's guess what courts will do," said Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), a sponsor of one bill. "But I think it's time for states to push back and start putting the federal government back in its box."

The measure likely to attract the most attention is the one designed to put Virginia on a collision course with Democratic health-care legislation. Sponsor Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said that since unveiling the measure, he has heard from state lawmakers in four other states who are interested in introducing similar legislation.

"If this starts to roll across the United States, it's going to send a big signal to Congress: You are messing with things you have no power to do," Marshall said.

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