Last week was not a particularly happy one for Abe Brault.
Brault, of Fairfax County, is the leader of the Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate. He come to that position a year ago in a barely bloodless coup in which 28 Senate Democrate of all stripes united against seven who were the last remnant of the conservative club that ran the Senate for about 50 years.
It is Brault's task as majority leader to make the Senate work, to get passed in sessions of 30 to 90 days a respectable body of legislation that responds to the needs of the Commonwealth.
If he had a loyal following of 28 in a 40-member Senate, his task would be easy enough. But one death cut his coalition to 27 and among those Democrats there are enough differences based on region, philosophy, age, profession and other factors to reduce his majority to one that exists for organizational purposes only.
Moreover, a major reason for Brault's election as majority leader was the desire of most Senate Democrats to have a majority leader who would not use the tools of seniority and a special relationship with the governor to push them around. Brault knows this, knows that he couldn't rule with an iron hand if he wanted to and says he doesn't want to.
As a result, the Senate has become a rather unrestrained debating society, and that is why last week was not a particularly happy one for its majority leader.
Before the session that began on Jan. 12, Brault set as his goal the passage of budget amendments that would close a $100-million revenue gap without cutting back aid to local governments and adoption of some of the major recommendations of a commission on government reorganization.
"I am a realist," he said. "If we can do those two things and handle the normal flow of less controversial bills in 45 days, I will be satisfied."
Brault's plan called for the exclusion of controversial proposals that become the objects of intense and time-consuming debate, but are almost certain from the outset to die in either the Senate or House of Delegates.
One such proposal, in Brault's view, is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. He was sure that no matter what the Senate did about ERA this year, it would die in the House, So it was with great regret that Brault, the corners of his mouth turned down, sat glumly through two days in the Senate last week that were dominated by debate over ERA.
The first was devoted to a motion to discharge the Privileges and Elections Committee from further consideration of ERA so that it could be debated on the floor for the first time since it was proposed by Congress in 1972.
The second day of debate on Thursday produced three hours of passionate advocacy that changed no one's vote. Ratification failed by one vote, and the futility of the time-consuming debate was thus underscored for Brault.
The oratory produced some gems, including one sober pronouncement by ERA foe Frederick T. Gray (D-Chesterfield), who said, "I am glad my mother did not learn to march like a Marine."
Brault could have ended the rhetoric after a couple of hours by moving the pending question, a non-debatable motion that almost always results in a final vote on the issue at hand.
Instead, he rose at one point to say, "I am not going to make that magic of senators because I know there are a lot of senators who want to get on the tube and in the press with their positions on this issue. But I ask you to be brief."
Almost no one was.
Despite the lack of restraint on debate in the Senate and the crush of bills - more than 1,800 - still alive in the Assembly, Brault was barely able this year to get the Senate to agree to a 52-day session, seven days longer than many wanted.
To get the necessary 27 votes to extend the session, Brault had to appeal for party loyalty in a 30-minute meeting of the Democratic caucus and then bear the barbs of the Republican minority who blamed the extension on the inefficiency of the majority.
The most telling thrust came from Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria). Mitchell is just a freshman member of the six-Senator Republican minority, but he is a concientious legislator who seldom misses a chance to perceive some shortcoming in Senate operations. He is able to irritate Brault with an absence of effort that is marvelous to behold.
"I do not intend to represent that the business of this Commonwealth can now be done in a 45-day session," Mitchell said in the debate on extension. "But I point out that this is another indication that this Senate must adopt procedures that reward early filing of bills and speed up their consideration."
Brault rose to dismiss Mitchell's remarks as those of a rank novice, but the majority leader obviously longs for more discipline in the Senate. The choice seems to be between new procedures or a new iron hand.