Two-day showdown ends tortuous Va. budget standoff

Senator wrestled with decision to break ranks

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Gov. Bob McDonnell met privately Tuesday with Charles J. Colgan, the longtime Democratic senator who had the power to break a 38-day impasse over the state’s two-year $85 billion budget. He had a simple question.

What do you want from me? Mr. McDonnell asked.

Mr. Colgan, the 85-year-old 10-term Prince William Democrat, had served on the conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the budget. He had been vague on whether he would vote for the plan, which had been held up over his party’s demand for an additional $300 million for the Dulles rail project. But he had stressed the importance of avoiding a protracted standoff. Mr. Colgan said an assurance from the Republican governor that he was committed to rail-to-Dulles would be enough.

Mr. McDonnell obliged. He put it in writing in a letter on Tuesday.

OK, Mr. Colgan said. And he left the meeting prepared to vote for the budget.

By the end of the next day, however, Mr. Colgan changed his mind not once but twice, helping create what one lawmaker called a “legislative vertigo that is not going to dissipate anytime soon” and capping a session already made acrimonious from power struggles and votes on social issues that had laid bare the partisan rifts in the historically genteel chamber.

An apparent victory

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax and Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin of Henrico met individually with Mr. McDonnell in his office around midday Tuesday. They, too, saw Mr. McDonnell’s letter, but they didn’t like its “testy” tone. Enraged, they aired their views in a closed-door caucus meeting. Mr. Colgan informed his party of his intention to vote for the budget. It did not go over well.

By just after 5:30 p.m. when a vote was taken, Democrats had held the line. Mr. Colgan joined them and the budget failed to get the necessary 21 votes to pass.

At that point, it was Republicans’ turn to be angry.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr., James City Republican, had been banking on Mr. Colgan’s vote.

“He’s a wonderful man, but let me tell you, when you are 85 years old and a statesman in Virginia and Dick Saslaw decides that he’s going to give you some serious kidney punches over and over and over, then perhaps you cannot resist,” he fumed.

State employees’ paychecks were at risk. Local governments, in the midst of crafting their own budgets, were in limbo. Transportation projects might be stalled or shut down, the GOP said.

After the vote, a victorious but clearly weary Mr. Saslaw, flanked by Democratic colleagues in their caucus room, said they weren’t going to be talking to the governor that night. Or in the morning.

“It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” he boldly declared.

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