The Virginia Senate approved a bill today to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a state holiday after a heated clash between Richmond Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, the bill's perennial sponsor, and Fairfax Sen. Adelard L. Brault.

The holiday bill, approved by a 26-to-11 vote, now goes to the House of Delegates, where it was defeated in committee last year. Wilder said he is "not pessimistic" about the bill's chances this year, especially in light of its decisive victory in the Senate.

Brault said he objected to a provision that would have made Jan. 15 a holiday instead of Election Day, currently a holiday for Virginia government workers. Brault said the state should encourage people to vote, and he argued that honoring King on Jan. 1, as current state law provides, is adequate. After all, he said, "Is Christmas Christ's birthday?"

Wilder chastised Brault, who has announced his retirement from the Senate. "It pains me to see my good friend, in the twilight of his career, it pains me more than you can imagine to see him go out in this fashion," Wilder said during the debate.

That had Brault leaping to his feet, reminding Wilder that he had opposed the state's poll tax and championed civil rights since his election in 1965. "Let me say to the distinguished junior senator from Richmond, I need no excuse to vote for those things that are right and proper," Brault said. "I have never needed an excuse and I don't need an excuse now."