RICHMOND — Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol is the very picture of steady, deliberative lawmaking this year, and senators and delegates working on their bread-and-butter bills can’t help but wonder: Is this weird or what?
Three tumultuous, bitterly partisan General Assembly sessions came before this one, with legislators warring over vaginal ultrasounds and a gay candidate for a judgeship, a redistricting sneak attack and a secret Medicaid expansion scheme, a whopping, tax-heavy transportation bill, two bouts of budget brinkmanship and repeated struggles for control of the Senate.
This time around, even with a $2.4 billion hole to plug, the state budget is sailing along. Hot-button bills have died quietly in committee. For legislators skewered by cable news commentators and on “Saturday Night Live” in sessions past, the hottest potato of 2015 has been a bill that calls for the neutering of feral cats.
Presiding over this relative calm is Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the longtime partisan bulldog whose flamboyant outreach and forceful freshman-year Medicaid push intensified the bedlam that first broke out under his predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R).
But this is McAuliffe 2.0, who has shifted priorities and tactics in his second go-round with the legislature. McAuliffe has essentially shelved the divisive Medicaid expansion and been focusing on a potentially legacy-building priority that both parties can back: economic development.
The state GOP, meanwhile, now in control of both the House and Senate, has been rebranding itself at one of its lowest points in recent electoral history. After a string of statewide losses, Republicans are trumpeting kitchen-table issues over social ones.
The changes could provide McAuliffe and the legislature a workable path forward, one that leads them out of the cycle of legislative gridlock — and leaves Capitol Square strangely devoid of drama.
“It is a little odd, because usually there are one or two issues that sometimes you don’t even see coming, and that creep up on you and almost explode at some point,” said Del. Peter F. Farrell (R-Henrico). “But that hasn’t happened this year.”
“I think part of it is there may be some fatigue on both sides, with the almost-government shutdown last year,” he said. “I think people just want to get the work done and show all our constituents that we can get out of here actually on time for once.”
The lack of drama should not be confused with a lack of work on important, even sensitive issues. Campus sexual assaults, medical marijuana and ethics reform have been taken up, as has a plan to transform the state-run liquor monopoly into a more business-savvy authority. The fault lines on some of those matters have not followed party lines, taking the partisan edge off honest policy debates.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Is this the session about nothing?’ ” said Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem). “I said, ‘No, it’s actually about a lot of things. It’s about . . . [school testing] reform. It’s about transportation funding reform. It’s about ethics reform. It’s about what appears to be a conservative, well-written budget. But because the House Republican caucus is so focused on kitchen-table issues that don’t drive salacious headlines, it’s just not getting a lot of coverage. . . . It’s been a very productive session, but it’s been an out-of-the-headlines session.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said this session is “maybe not interesting if you’re hosting ‘Crossfire,’ but it’s what Virginians want from their leaders.”
Not that Capitol Square has become a bipartisan love fest. The partisan digs keep coming from all sides, even in moments of legislative unity. When House Republicans unveiled a mental-health package not too far afield from what McAuliffe had proposed, the governor’s office issued a statement saying he was pleased, “even if it took the announcement of his own plan to motivate them to act.”
Ask Democrats and Republicans what accounts for the change, and each side will say the other has simply wised up and shut up, either on right-wing social issues (Republicans) or left-wing ones (Democrats).
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Republican caucus got egg on their face the last three years and that they have made a concerted effort this year to try and muzzle their firebrands — keep the crazy cousins in the closet,” said Scott A. Surovell (Fairfax), leader of the House Democratic caucus.
Republicans, meanwhile, give backhanded credit to McAuliffe for accepting defeat on Medicaid, which he pushed last year until Virginia was on the brink of a government shutdown. He proposed expansion again this year, as well as gun-control legislation, but he has put up virtually no fight when measures have died at the hands of Republicans.
“The governor, who is pretty outspoken on his issues, has been relatively quiet,” said Del. Richard L. Anderson (R-Prince William). “So I don’t know if he’s just trying out a different business model or this is the calm before the storm. . . . It’s kind of a welcome break.”
This is how it’s supposed to be in Richmond, self-proclaimed home to the “Virginia way.” Maybe that much-ballyhooed civility has never been strictly observed, but it was utterly ignored in 2012, when Republicans took control of the previously evenly divided Senate and partisan tensions shot through the Capitol’s stately, domed roof.
What followed was a raft of conservative social legislation, including a measure that inadvertently would have required women to undergo vaginal ultrasound examinations before obtaining abortions. In heated debates, Democrats accused Republicans of “state-sponsored rape.” The bill was eventually toned down to mandate an abdominal ultrasound, but only after the legislature had been thoroughly lampooned on national television. Democrats have used the episode ever since to pound their “war on women” theme in statewide and national elections.
Every session since then was a barnburner, right through last year, McAuliffe’s first. The new governor and a narrow bipartisan majority in the Senate pushed relentlessly to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and House Republicans pushed right back. The standoff blocked passage of a budget for months, bringing the state within weeks of a government shutdown.
This session promised similar fireworks by opening with an unseemly first: Jailed Del. Joseph D. Morrissey (I-Henrico), serving time for a conviction related to a relationship with a 17-year-old receptionist in his law office, was coming to the Capitol each day on work release.
Days of spectacle ensued as a throng of reporters tracked Morrissey’s every move and House leaders tried to decide whether and how to discipline him. They have yet to do anything beyond denying Morrissey any committee assignments. But Morrissey has remained uncharacteristically quiet, speaking just once on the floor (to recognize his pastor for giving the day’s invocation). The story has faded, at least for now.
And nothing else has popped up to take its place. The 46-day session hit its halfway mark last week, so there is still time. Redistricting looms as a likely contender, especially since Republicans adopted rules allowing bills on that subject to be filed after the normal deadline — ostensibly to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in, but possibly, Democrats fear, to allow an 11th-hour bill.
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) is the rare legislator who disputes that this has been a quiet session.
“You’ve got Joe Morrissey, cat bills and the governor falling off a horse,” he said, referring to a riding accident that caused McAuliffe to be hospitalized for several days in January.
But Stanley does think that the General Assembly and McAuliffe are finding ways to get along.
“I think the governor’s learning how to play in the sandbox,” Stanley said, “and we’re learning how to share our toys with him.”