A partisan ploy by Democrats to gerrymander one of Northern Virginia's Republican congressmen out of office by radically redrawing his House district failed today when legislative leaders recessed the General Assembly after deadlocking over the issue.
Nonetheless, the Democratic law-makers who drafted the proposal said they believed they had the votes to push it through the House of Delegates and would attempt to do so when the legislature reconvenes April 29.
The Northern Virginia plan, which whould throw Republican Reps. Stanford Parris and Frank Wolf into the same congressional district, is part of a highly partisan redistricting package -- dubbed the "Jefferson plan" -- that would drastically realign all 10 of Virginia's congressional districts to help Democrats recapture seats lost to the Republicans over the last decade.
And while the conservative Democratic leaders who oppose the package said they recessed today's session simply to give lawmakers time to recuperate from the reapportionment battles of the last two weeks, the partisan mavericks pushing the "Jefferson plan" say the recess was ordered to prevent them from winning on the House floor.
"They [the leadership] are trying to put the squeeze on us because they know we've got the votes and they're scared to death," said Arlington Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, one of the proposal's authors.
Before recessing for three weeks, the Senate and the House of Delegates approved each other's state legislative reapportionment plans -- measures that the lawmakers conceded were largely fashioned to help incumbents retain their seats -- and sent them to Gov. John N. Dalton. Despite what he has acknowledged are serious constitutional questions about the House plan, the governor is expected to sign both bills Friday, making Virginia the first state to complete its legislative reapportionment on the basis of the 1980 Census.
Many legislators also have acknowledged they believe the House plan faces probable rejection by the courts because it radically deviates from what the Supreme Court has said it would accept under its "one-man one-vote" principle.
Maverick Democrats today said their congressional plan would give their party an opportunity to retake five of the nine House of Representatives seates currently held by Republicans. In Northern Virginia, the plan is designed to create a district largely inside the Capital Beltway that would be immune to Republican candidates.
The congressional district proposal earlier this week had won the crucial endorsement of Adelard L. Brault, Fairfax County's senior Democratic state senator. But today, after a night of telephone calls from angry Fairfax Democrats concerned that the plan would create an "outer Beltway" district that would be a Republican stronghold, Brault and the county's other Democratic senators changed their minds.
The result was a heated, closed-door caucus of Northern Virginia Democrats this morning from which Arlington delegates emerged, denouncing their fellow Democrats Fairfax.
Stambaugh called Brault and the other Fairfax senators "gutless." Said fellow Arlingtonian Del. Mary A. Marshall: "We're all going to go home and buy boxes of starch for our senators."
Stambaugh said that without the realignment, Democrats were likely to continually lose both Northern Virginia districts to the GOP. But the Fairfax senators argued that even under the Stambaugh plan, neighter district could be considered safe for Democrats.
"If Stambaugh thinks this would have guaranteed a Democratic seat, he's dreaming," said Fairfax Sen. Richard L. Saslaw.
Northern Virginia Republican law-makers are bitterly opposed to the plan -- as are Parris and Wolf, saying it is blatant gerrymandering that is almost certain to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Dalton if passed by the legislature.
"I think Jefferson would turn over in his grave if he saw this plan," said Del. Martin Perper (R-Fairfax).
Republicans also suggested the plan could backfire, because voters would resent the widespread changes. They believe the result could damage Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, the Democrat's certain gubernatorial nominee. To drive that point home, a Northern Virginia Republican caucus today voted to send letters to both Robb and his GOP opponent, Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, asking them to publicly state their positions on the proposal.
Democratic legislative leaders also fear political fallout from the proposal. Shown a new version of the "Jefferson plan" today by one of its supporters, House Speaker A. L. Philpott frowned and said, "If you think this is going to go through, then we've all lost our minds."
Fairfax Democrats say they believe most of the plan is doomed, but say the Northern Virginia portion might survive -- only to face a gubernatorial veto that could prove politically embarrassing to them. "We'd be sticking out there like a sore thumb as the only reason the governor vetoed the bill," said "Brault.
Today's recess was attributed by legislative leaders to a combination of exhaustion, computer delays and a weekend convention that forced many legislators to check out of their local hotel rooms this afternoon. In a comedy of confusion typical of much of the two week special session, Senate leaders said the House had requested the recess, while House leaders blamed it on the Senate.
"All the poop went out of us," said Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews, adding that lawmakers had spent so much time worrying about redrawing their own districts, they were too tired to concentrate on the congressional boundaries.
In an effort to accommodate incumbents, a House committee Monday had approved a plan that inadvertently called for 101 delegates -- one above the legal limit. The House plan that was finally approved contains districts that deviate from others by as much as 26 percent in population, well above the upper limits set by the Supreme Court.
"It's just blatantly unconstitutional," said Alexandria Del. Bernard S. Cohen, who voted against the plan. "We may have to come back and do it all over again -- if the courts don't do it for us."