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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.

But Mr. Saslaw hinted the door was open to more talks.

We'd be open to less than $300 million, he said he told Mr. McDonnell of the Dulles rail funding. Heck, the governor could even outline the terms and conditions.

A change of heart

On Wednesday morning, legislators gathered for "veto session," an annual exercise in which the assembly considers the governor's vetoes and amendments.

But the previous night's vote cast a pall over the session.

Mr. McDonnell sent another letter to Mr. Colgan, this one addressed to him alone. The governor made a simple appeal to the World War II veteran and aviation entrepreneur who had publicly heeded Mr. McDonnell's call for civility in the divided chamber. It was Mr. Colgan — coaxed on more than one occasion to run again when he had been contemplating retirement — who delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor March 8, telling his colleagues in both parties to quit their petty fights and animosity and get a budget done.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is not like it used to be," Mr. Colgan said. "Never can I recall a time, in my 37 years on this floor, have I ever seen so much animosity or heard so much criticism."

"I remember something Winston Churchill once said," he continued, "'A politician is one who is concerned about the next election. A statesman is one who is concerned about the next generation.' We should be concerned about the next generation."

Literally three paragraphs, the letter Mr. McDonnell sent to Mr. Colgan on Wednesday repeated much of what the governor said Tuesday and again pledged his support for the Dulles rail project.

The Senate gaveled in at 11:55 a.m. and recessed at 11:57 a.m. A tentative deal to shift some money from the "caboose budget" closing out the current fiscal year and away from other Northern Virginia transportation projects toward Dulles rail was approached, then abandoned.

Corey A. Stewart, the Republican chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, called Mr. Colgan that morning. He urged him to vote for the budget. Mr. Colgan also spoke with Delegate Lacey E. Putney, Bedford independent who has served in the House for more than 50 years.

The Senate reconvened at 2:50. It recessed again at 2:51.

Talks broke down.

Mr. Norment didn't say exactly when Mr. Colgan approached him to tell him he had reconsidered and would deliver the decisive vote in favor of the budget. The only problem was that, by the time he did, Republicans were one vote short.

The decisive vote

Sen. Harry B. Blevins, Chesapeake Republican, was on the Senate floor when he got the text message from his daughter saying his wife, in a hospital 100 miles away because of a heart condition, was not responding to medication. He left the Capitol immediately.

The Republican leadership needed Mr. Blevins but was unable to reach him. They could wait another day for him to return. That would cost taxpayers $40,000 to keep lawmakers in session and also give Democrats, apparently still unaware of Mr. Colgan's decision, more time to circle the wagons and again lock down his vote.

Mr. Norment opted for something else. He enlisted the Virginia State Police to help track down Mr. Blevins, get him back into the chamber and quickly vote, lest the best laid plans once more go awry.

"We just worked it through the various relationships that we have," he said of the police assistance. "I would suggest that they have a vested interest."

Mr. Blevins was eventually alerted by an aide that he was needed back at the Capitol, so he returned. He left his car near the building and dashed into the chamber.

At 4:25 p.m., the Senate reconvened.

Mr. Colgan moved to reconsider the budget. It passed, 21-19. And the body went back into recess at 4:30 p.m. Mr. Blevins was flown in a state police helicopter back to the hospital after the vote — a $1,530 expense that no one is challenging. Mr. Norment and Mr. McDonnell lauded Mr. Colgan for his leadership.

Democrats, their ranks broken, were stunned. They had lost on the budget and they had secured nothing more on Dulles rail. They retreated into a caucus meeting.

Within an hour of the vote, Mr. Colgan had left the grounds.

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