Despite Pledge, Va. Legislators Bickering

Voters cast their ballots at Colvin Run Elementary School in Vienna on Nov. 4. The results of the fall election will affect Virginia legislative races this year.
Voters cast their ballots at Colvin Run Elementary School in Vienna on Nov. 4. The results of the fall election will affect Virginia legislative races this year. (By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

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."

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