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Virginia Republicans threaten payback for Democrats’ snub of Trump EPA chief

House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), second from right, next to House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), right, Del. Israel O'Quinn (R-Washington), left, and Del. Barry Knight, (R-Virginia Beach), inside the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 11, 2022. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — House Republicans threatened on Friday to unseat about 1,000 Democratic appointees to state regulatory and governing boards in what would have been a highly disruptive payback for Senate Democrats’ rejecting one of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) Cabinet picks and most of his legislative agenda.

Democrats compared the move, which the GOP largely abandoned hours later, to a government shutdown. Republicans suggested that characterization was overblown, but Democrats argued the move would have imperiled the work of about 300 boards overseeing matters ranging from transportation to public universities and air pollution. Some boards could have had trouble mustering a quorum without the appointees, Democrats said.

In response, Democrats vowed to refuse all of Youngkin’s future appointees if Republicans went through with it. After an hours-long standoff, Republicans said they would reject just a handful of the appointees.

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The episode highlighted — and seemed to exacerbate — soaring partisan tensions in Richmond, with a divided Capitol and a new, hard-charging governor who has preached unity while also stirring division.

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), the Democratic Caucus chairwoman, issued a statement denouncing “the bravado and arrogance of House Republicans and Governor Youngkin.”

Republicans in control of the House, meanwhile, pointed the finger at Democrats for taking the rare step of rejecting a governor’s Cabinet pick. Days earlier, the Democrat-led Senate voted against Youngkin’s choice for secretary of natural and historic resources, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations as President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief.

“They started it by taking Wheeler off, and, you know, they wanted to play the game, so we’re going to play the game,” House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott) said.

Kilgore said Youngkin was on board with the threat and later with the decision to limit the action to 15 to 20 appointees. Youngkin spokeswoman Becca Glover declined to comment on whether the governor supported the moves.

Democrat Ralph Northam, whose term as governor expired last month, made the appointments to about 300 boards over his last year in office. The General Assembly typically signs off on such appointments, even after a governor has left office, unless there is some concern about an individual’s qualifications or performance. The legislature had until the end of Friday’s floor session to accept or reject the appointees, some of whom have been serving for months. Under state law, they cannot be reappointed if the legislature rejects them.

Locke noted in her statement that “many of these appointees have been serving the Commonwealth for nearly a year, and denying them full confirmation undermines the smooth transfer of power Governor Youngkin claimed he accomplished,” she said.

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Republicans made no apologies for playing hardball.

“The Senate needs to realize, this is a bicameral legislature, and that we control the House and they control the Senate, and we are going to try to pursue what we think is right,” Kilgore said.

House Republicans dug in on the Wheeler appointment last month, vowing to hold up the reappointment of a State Corporation Commission judge and block elections for two state Supreme Court justices. But the broader effort to block about 1,000 Northam appointees was unknown among Democrats until Friday, when they realized that the House had not acted on them and the deadline was fast approaching.

Locke and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who chairs the Senate committee that handles such appointments, walked from the Senate to the House to confront House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who halted work on the floor so he could come down from the dais to meet with them just outside the chamber.

“It is entirely unprecedented to throw away an entire year’s worth of hard work done by these appointees, and refusing their confirmation will bring parts of our government to a screeching halt,” Ebbin said. “This is not a trivial matter, and playing politics with consequential governing and regulatory boards is plainly bad government.”

The stalling over the appointees kept lawmakers in the House chambers into the evening, dragging out an already full schedule as they tried to push through final legislation before next week’s crossover deadline. The House ended up voting to reject 11 appointees from the board of education, state air pollution control board, state water control board, safety and health codes board and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The hundreds of other appointees remained in place.

“We could have just let them all die today, but out of good faith we are going to act today and move forward,” Kilgore said before the vote.