Feb. 22, the day the Republican-led General Assembly adjourns, can't arrive soon enough for Gov. Mark R. Warner, according to his fellow Democrats in the Virginia legislature.
After weeks of quietly snickering about Warner's frustrating session, Republican lawmakers are now openly disparaging the style and substance of his leadership. At one point last week, senior GOP legislators tweaked Warner about his agenda, leading the state's chief executive to hold an impromptu news conference to defend his accomplishments.
Meanwhile -- and more disturbing to Democratic leaders -- members of Warner's own party are grumbling that the governor has not plunged into the legislative swirl to protect their interests or strike bipartisan deals to win passage of important bills.
"Every governor has his own style," said House Democratic Leader Franklin P. Hall of Richmond. "This governor has not used the bully pulpit as much as some of the others."
Warner administration officials said there is ample time before the assembly adjourns to win some key votes or at least corner Republicans on issues that could resurface in the Nov. 4 elections for all 140 legislative seats. Officials also note that once lawmakers leave, Warner will enjoy wide latitude to amend or veto any number of Republican-sponsored bills.
At the same time, officials from Warner on down acknowledge the limitations of his resolutely bipartisan approach to issues in an election-year session that only inflames partisan passions.
"I understood when I took on this a year ago that being bipartisan is sometimes the hardest thing to do," Warner said. "You end up getting hit from both ends of the political spectrum."
Warner has lost by razor-thin margins on two of his big issues: a mandatory seat belt law and a state constitutional change to permit back-to-back terms for governors. The governor was defeated by a wider margin when Republicans (and a few Democratic defectors) voted to repeal Virginia's tax on estates of the wealthy, a measure he opposed.
As the session has progressed, Republican leaders, especially in the more partisan House, have sensed Warner's vulnerabilities and on some votes have made it even more difficult for the Democrat to achieve a victory.
"He has victories he's going to claim, but we helped him win those victories," said House Whip Jeannemarie A. Devolites (R-Fairfax).
Warner was not celebrating on Tuesday -- the session's midpoint -- after the House of Delegates rejected the two-term proposal on a 51 to 49 vote and the Senate passed the estate tax repeal by a veto-proof majority; the House had approved the estate tax repeal measure Monday.
Then, on Wednesday, two normally mild-mannered leaders of the House and Senate held a news conference to review the first half of the session and, in response to reporters' questions, ended up faulting Warner's entire approach to the assembly session.
William J. Howell (R-Stafford), the new House speaker, announced that he had no working relationship with Warner and was never consulted by members of Warner's legislative lobbying team.
Asked if Warner was at all relevant to the legislative process, Howell replied matter-of-factly: "Oh, sure, he's the governor of the commonwealth," and recited Warner's constitutional powers on amending and vetoing the legislature's handiwork.
Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R) of suburban Richmond, appearing with Howell, said he had worked with the administration on one bill, adding, "Other than that, I've really had very little interaction."
"We're certainly not seeking to derail his agenda," Stosch said. "We're not exactly sure what the totality of the agenda is. It seems to be somewhat fragmented."
The criticism of Warner rippled outward from the legislative leadership, as rank-and-file members took those cues and began voicing their own exasperation with an executive who they said holds lawmakers at arm's length. Moderate Republicans who cooperated closely with Warner last year said he never seeks their counsel nowadays; Democrats picked up that drumbeat, grousing that administration officials rarely appear at hearings to testify on their behalf.
"It's a general feeling of non-presence," said House Education Committee Chairman James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), a reliable Warner ally. As for fellow Republicans blocking Warner initiatives, Dillard said, "I don't think there is a concerted effort to get him or to crush him."
"It's more of an effort to one-up him," Dillard said.
Some Democrats said they worry that Warner may keep his distance well into the election season, when they will need his support and financial assistance -- just to hang on to the legislative seats they hold. Some party activists in the legislature said Warner is playing it too safe, stirring as few waves as possible in hopes of a run for U.S. Senate or national office.
Other Democrats said Warner's pragmatic approach is essential if the governor hopes to ever make progress on huge unresolved issues facing Virginia, including long-term funding for education and rewriting the state's antiquated tax code.
Senate Democratic Caucus leader Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington said Warner has toiled behind the scenes for months on a host of legislative proposals, ranging from local electoral boards to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup -- two issues where his bills are coasting through the assembly.
"That is the guts of politics: good, solid advocacy work that isn't flashy but that gets the job done," Whipple said. "I would not write off Mark Warner."
While acknowledging the disappointments, Warner said he will keep plugging away at his priorities, notably a series of bills to streamline state bureaucracy.
"It's sometimes tough to change the status quo here," Warner said. "I was very clear . . . to come out with a reform package that would allow us to go to the people of Virginia and say, 'We've taken these tough times and ended up delivering more efficient state government.'
"We're still on the path to that," Warner said.