By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A01
RICHMOND -- Virginia's Democratic-controlled state Senate passed measures Monday that would make it illegal to require individuals to purchase health insurance, a direct challenge to the party's efforts in Washington to reform health care.
The bills, a top priority of Virginia's "tea party" movement, were approved 23 to 17 as five Democrats who represent swing areas of the state joined all 18 Republicans in the chamber in backing the legislation.
The votes came less than a week after President Obama implored Democrats in Washington not to abandon their health-care efforts, urging them in his State of the Union address not to "run for the hills" on the issue.
But the action in Virginia, a state that backed Obama in 2008, could indicate that the president is failing to reassure members of his own party that current reform efforts remain worthwhile. The votes also suggest that Democrats on the state level fear that supporting health-care reform could be politically damaging, and their action could put pressure on members of the state's congressional delegation who have been behind the effort.
"It doesn't make it easier," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, who voted for health-care legislation and is one of several Virginia Democrats facing a strong challenge this year.
Each of three similar bills that passed the state Senate on Monday would run counter to legislation passed by both chambers of Congress, which would require all individuals to purchase health care.
The bills were also expected to be approved by the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he will review the bills but supports their intent.
"I think the General Assembly is doing what they believe is right for the citizens of Virginia," McDonnell told reporters Monday. "And, like them, I oppose these broad, costly federal mandates that undermine the ability of Virginians to create more access at less cost."
Measures prompted by the Washington debate are pending in at least 29 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Proponents of the Virginia measures said Congress would overstep the bounds of its constitutional authority if it required the purchase of private insurance.
"I don't believe someone should be forced to buy something they don't want to," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat who represents rural Russell County. "It's un-American. And it might be unconstitutional."
Senators will face reelection next year, and each of the Democrats who backed the measures represents more conservative areas of the state, where strong Republican candidates are expected to mount challenges.
Sen. Frederick M. Quayle (R-Chesapeake), the sponsor of one of the bills, said: "Never in the history of this country has Congress mandated that all the citizens of the United States purchase anything. If they can mandate this, they can mandate anything."
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) said such measures could help Virginia's government establish standing to intervene in a lawsuit against the federal government, should Congress pass a bill that includes an individual mandate.
"It's a strong political message," said Cuccinelli, who has been studying possible legal action.
Other legal scholars and many of the senators who voted against the measure said they thought it would have little practical impact because it would be preempted by federal law.
"This would not be worth the paper it's written on, and everybody knows it," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "Everybody knows this bill is nothing more than a brochure bill."
Opponents said a health-care mandate would be an important way to help pay for requiring insurance companies to provide coverage to people with preexisting conditions.
In his first substantial floor speech since rejoining colleagues in the state Senate after running for governor, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said the chamber's time would be better spent addressing unemployment or the state's $4 billion budget shortfall. Deeds, who was criticized during his campaign for not fully embracing Obama and national Democratic policies, backed his party leaders in this case and voted against the measures.
His comments were echoed by Connolly, who urged state lawmakers to concentrate on finding money for Virginia's traffic-clogged roads.
"It's always easier in the political arena to pontificate and pander than it is to actually deliver meaningful legislation and services," he said.
The concept was a major focus of a rally by tea party activists last month that drew more than 1,000 to Richmond. Jamie Radtke, chairman of the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots, said that it was a focus of major lobbying by volunteers who affiliate with such groups in Virginia and that the vote showed they are achieving bipartisan support.
"This is a major victory for our movement," Radtke said.