RICHMOND, Feb. 24 -- Perhaps the most memorable promise Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) made during his 2005 campaign was to solve the state's transportation crisis.
On Saturday, the Republican-controlled legislature gave him what he has been demanding since he took office: A transportation plan that pledges to fix Virginia's system of roads and rails.
What Kaine does with it now will go a long way toward determining his legacy and the political tilt of the commonwealth.
"I have really believed since Sept. 30, when people walked out with nothing, that we ought to try to find a solution," Kaine said Saturday, referring to the disappointing end to a special legislative session last fall that failed to produce a plan. "We are not there yet, but having a vehicle to do some amendments and try to fix it is quite preferable to having nothing."
But despite the legislature's actions and a plan on the table, Kaine isn't smiling.
The governor says the legislation does little to solve the state's transportation problems and puts other crucial services at risk. Kaine is threatening to conduct "major surgery" on the plan. And aides say it is possible that he could veto it if his changes are not embraced.
"The extensive use of general fund moneys intended to be used for schools and public safety and public health to support massive borrowing raises some very serious fiscal concerns," Kaine said.
Kaine said his concerns are not driven by election-year politics: "Doing the right thing will help everyone."
But although the plan's last-minute approval gives Kaine the opportunity to make good on his campaign pledge, it also could rob Kaine's Democratic Party of a compelling issue when all 140 lawmakers face voters Nov. 6.
For months, Democrats have been hammering Republicans for the bickering that led to years of stalemate over the budget, taxes and transportation. In partisan speeches, Kaine had promised to seek "new partners" in the General Assembly, a thinly veiled code for his desire to unseat Republican lawmakers.
If the Republicans had failed to deliver a roads plan again this year, Democrats would have been able to run this fall against a do-nothing GOP legislature. Now, they need a new tactic. The roads plan on Kaine's desk is clearly from the Republicans. Only a handful of Democrats voted for it.
"Now they have a lot less argument about us not providing a transportation plan and providing leadership on this issue," Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax) said. "Clearly, the Republicans provide the leadership, because I am not aware of any Democrat transportation plan."
Republicans said Saturday that the passage of their plan should help them politically. Many of them began the year convinced that continued feuding would bring electoral ruin, especially if they did not pass a bill during the session to build and maintain roads.
"As someone who has really, really been worried that we need to get beyond this transportation fight, today . . . was a great day," Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) said.
The roads plan approved Saturday evolved from deliberations among a group of top GOP leaders in the Senate and House, who negotiated secretly for weeks in December and January. Republicans said they will remind voters of the plan's origins as Election Day nears.
"It helps us tremendously politically," House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said. "I had no doubt that we were going to hold our majority regardless. But let's face it. The other side really struggled. They opposed our solution en bloc."
But Kaine's advisers said they do not plan to let the Republicans define the election-year issues or run away from the negative things Democrats say the transportation plan does.
In the next few weeks, Kaine is likely to travel the state with a message that the Republican-led bill is not good for teachers, police officers, health-care workers or others who depend on state funding.
"The game isn't over," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic caucus and a key Kaine ally. "Obviously, we will return for the veto session. The governor needs a sharp knife, because the bill needs major surgery."
As governor, Kaine has a bully pulpit unlike any of the Republican lawmakers. His criticisms of the bill could make it difficult for some GOP candidates to campaign on it in the fall, especially in suburban communities where issues such as education are just as important as roads and transit.
He also has other leverage: More than 900 bills that passed the legislature -- including many sponsored by Republicans -- sit on his desk, awaiting his signature. The challenge for Kaine will be to keep the heat on Republicans while keeping his promise on transportation.
In Virginia, voters typically reward governors who get things done. Republican George Allen was popular as he left office, having ended parole and revamped welfare. Democrat Mark R. Warner turned his budget and tax victory into a reputation as one of the nation's most efficient governors.
So far, Kaine does not have a legacy-making success. A transportation bill that he and his party can live with would go a long way toward giving him one.