- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

RICHMOND — House Republicans — described as weak-kneed during a tax battle a few years ago — have rebounded this legislative session, providing voters with a clearer picture of what distinguishes them from their Democratic counterparts.

“I think over the last few years, we have allowed the lines between Republicans and Democrats to be blurred,” said Delegate Tim Hugo, Fairfax Republican. “And quite candidly, I think this year we are doing a better job. We are working with our Senate Republican colleagues, and frankly, you will see differences between Democrats and Republicans.”

Since the legislative session began on Jan. 9, House Republicans have defeated several proposals to tighten Virginia’s gun laws — most notably a plan supported by Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, that would have closed the so-called gun show loophole.

They have also cast themselves as the pro-business alternative to Democrats’ pro-labor leanings, rejected any talk of tax increases and expressed their opposition to a restaurant smoking ban.

They also have assigned top Democrats to committees that handle contentious spending plans and gun proposals.

For roughly eight years, Republicans in the Senate and House battled each other over tax issues, including whether to entirely phase out the personal property tax on cars. The 2004 debate over a $1.38 billion tax package presented by Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, led the District-based taxpayer-advocacy organization Americans for Tax Reform to refer to Republicans who voted for the increase as “weak-kneed.”

While Republicans fought, Democrats cast themselves as the party for mainstream Virginia and won several recent statewide elections.

In November, Democrats cut into the Republican majority in the House, winning four seats. They also won the four seats that they needed take control of the Virginia Senate for the first time since 1995.

“Certainly, you learn from elections, and we just went through a hard-fought election,” said John Hager, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “Some of the lesson we learned is we need to better define ourselves.”

The boldest example of that effort occurred last week.

Republican leaders used a rule change they established this year that allows House Speaker William J. Howell to bypass the committee process and put bills up for a vote on the House floor.

House leaders also invoked a rarely used parliamentary procedure to force a vote on a bill that put House lawmakers on the record against collective bargaining by state and local government workers.

The move angered Democrats, who accused Republicans of partisanship and breaking a “time-honored tradition” after they ignored a request from the bill’s sponsor to kill the bill.

Republicans countered that Democrats were “running away from a vote” for political reasons.

“Why were they not willing to take a vote?” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “The answer is, if they vote for the bill they send a clear signal to the business community they are undercutting the right to work in Virginia. If they vote against the bill, they send a clear message to the unions, ‘We are really not working for you.’ ”

“They didn’t want to send either message because in order to try to retake control, they have to talk out of both sides of their mouth,” he said.

The forced vote was part of a larger effort to remind business leaders which party truly has their best interests in mind.

The day before, Mr. Howell, Stafford Republican, sent a letter to business leaders across the state, warning them that many Democrats wanted to wipe out the state’s right-to-work law.

“It has become apparent that the bipartisan commitment to our right-to-work laws has been eroding over the last several years,” he said, tying Democrats to organized labor.

Delegate Kirkland M. Cox, Colonial Heights Republican, said the combined effort “really does allow us to define ourselves a the pro-business party and the other side — when push comes to shove — they really are not.”

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