Relations between Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner and some Republican lawmakers have deteriorated to the point where even fond farewells aren't so fond anymore.
Shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday, a mostly Republican group of legislators was ushered into Warner's conference room for the traditional goodbyes from lawmakers leaving the Virginia Capitol after their one-day veto session.
Skipping the customary small talk, state Del. Winsome E. Sears (R-Norfolk) needled Warner about his agenda, asking whether the governor planned to follow through on his threat to summon the General Assembly into special session just prior to the fall elections to deal with the budget crisis.
"Well," Warner replied stonily, "time will tell."
The brief but tense face-off between Sears and Warner was an indicator, leaders of both parties said today, of just how strained relations are at the outset of the legislative election season, when the governor and the assembly's GOP majority are still grappling with a record revenue shortfall that shows no signs of abating. Leading Democrats and Republicans warned that if the rift persisted, it could jeopardize progress on a host of issues, notably the state tax code restructuring that Warner and senior GOP lawmakers have promised for the coming year.
"We are in some danger of having very bad relations between the House and the governor's office," said House Republican Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem.
Said Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus: "The Republicans still feel it's an antagonistic relationship. I can't see them making the tough policy decisions or wanting to tackle the big issues."
Some partisans dismiss the tension as the natural undercurrent of a year in which all 140 assembly seats are on the Nov. 4 ballot. But those partisans also said the politically tinged votes and caustic debate of Wednesday's reconvened session may signal a divisiveness that could tie up state government for months.
During the 10-hour session, Warner won an important political and budgetary victory when Democrats rallied behind him to uphold his veto of legislation that would have repealed Virginia's estate tax starting next year. But the governor suffered a host of smaller defeats on social legislation, including new abortion restrictions, and on changes he proposed to the state's annual $25 billion budget.
About one-third of the budget amendments Warner proposed were defeated, including one that would have provided $223,000 to Project Exile, a crime-fighting program that has long been a favorite of Republican politicians. Also killed were a Warner amendment restoring $50,000 to the already small budget of Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and $438,274 for a program that helps ex-offenders.
Funding for the post-incarceration program was approved earlier in the day, but after Warner issued a news release about 8 p.m. touting his veto victory, enraged House Republicans reconsidered the funding.
Privately, some GOP leaders acknowledged that they killed Warner initiatives because they could. Others said they had legitimate policy disagreements with Warner. For instance, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) argued that Warner's proposal on gubernatorial executive privilege was "the mother of all power grabs." Callahan won several Democratic defectors to his side in defeating the measure.
Despite the setbacks, Warner said today he remains upbeat about bipartisan cooperation in the months ahead.
"The overwhelming majority of our agenda got through, and that would only happen with the cooperation of the Republican legislators," Warner said in an interview. "Campaign seasons always sharpen differences, but next year, with campaign pressures behind us, my hope is we'll be rolling up our sleeves and getting down to the issues that need to be addressed."
Other Democrats said they were more pessimistic, given the GOP majority's objectives during the assembly session this winter and, finally, on Wednesday.
"I'm worried about it," Kaine said. "The tone has gotten a little more desperate. The major chord is that it was a partisan session, but the real important minor chord is delay. They don't know their way out of the box they're in."
"This next year is going to be a real existential moment, a time for fundamental decisions -- a backbone-check for everybody," Kaine added, referring to a host of funding challenges in education, transportation and taxes.
Republican Griffith, sounding an accommodating note, said that even confrontational House members look to Warner for leadership through the potentially tough times ahead.
"He's got to have a goal -- or a series of goals -- that he wants, and communicate to us," Griffith said. "Then we can sit down as a team and figure out how to achieve those goals -- if we share them."