The House Democratic leadership, attempting to head off a growing rebellion against a weakened ethics bill passed by the Virginia Senate, agreed today to seek a compromise over some of the most controversial aspects of the measure.
The maneuver came as opponents of the bill, one of the most debated issues of the current legislative session, threatened to kill the measure. "We had the troops lined up," said Del. Arthur R. Giesen Jr. (R-Waynesboro), one of the opponents. "They can count as well as we can."
After almost an hour of intensive lobbying and vote-counting on the House floor, the measure's most vocal supporters retreated. They asked the House to reject Senate proposals, including provisions that would exempt legislators and local government officials from criminal prosecution for many conflict-of-interest violations.
"I can sense there is confusion," said Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News), amid snickers from his colleagues. Although Morrison helped draft some of the Senate amendments to the bill, he asked that they be rejected in an effort to save the bill from defeat.
The House then voted unanimously to ask the Senate to work out differences between the bills in a conference committee.
The Senate is expected to respond to the request Friday.
Today's action, prompted by opposition from Republicans as well as some Democrats, is the latest legislative step in what began as a relatively uncontroversial attempt to rewrite one phrase in the state's conflict-of-interest law.
It quickly grew into one of the hottest political issues of the legislature as some of the assembly's leaders have sought to weaken drastically the state's standards of conduct for public officials.
Although the legislature's actions have drawn cries of outrage from newspaper editorial writers, they encountered few opponents in the legislature until the Senate voted to exempt the legislature from criminal prosecution for violating most sections of the conflicts act. In addition, the Senate decided to allow local governing bodies to avoid criminal prosecution if they set up their own internal ethics committees, an action that angered some local officials. Morrison charged yesterday that some of his colleagues are "clearly looking for a reason to vote against the bill and beat their breasts to satisfy the public perception."
The House Republican caucus, in a statement released after today's vote, countered: "Our public trust must be served. Legislative deeds must not be excused . . . and the Republicans must insist on the highest standard of public accountability for its legislators."