RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats, shut out for virtually the entire 2012 General Assembly session, finally picked up significant momentum last week, as national mockery and intense grassroots lobbying helped beat back two controversial abortion-related measures.
And then Thursday evening happened.
Democrats voted in lock step against the Senate's budget proposal, and the topic du jour quickly shifted from "personhood" and ultrasounds to obstructionism and petty partisan politics, threatening to obliterate the party's potentially short-lived swagger after a string of disappointing electoral defeats.
Budget standoffs are not unprecedented in the state. In 2001, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, had to step in and amend the budget himself after a spat with the legislature over his plans to cut the state's car tax. In 2004, then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, ended up signing the state budget on June 25 after a protracted battle over his plan to pass $1.4 billion in new taxes to close a multibillion dollar shortfall and preserve the state's coveted AAA bond rating.
But those fights were not "saturated in partisan politics," argued Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr, James City Republican. The state's two-year budget, which needed 21 votes to pass, failed on a 20-17 tally with three Democrats not voting. Mr. Norment said members of his caucus would have policy discussions "morning, noon and night" with their Democratic counterparts but would not be prepared to talk about the politics of committee assignments that are behind the budget dispute.
"That decision has been made," he said.
Senate caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, insists the debate is, in fact, about policy.
"Tommy wants to talk about power — we're talking about people," he said. "If they had not skewed things so much, you would not have seen the repeal of one-gun-a-month, which polling shows Virginians don't want, you would not have seen personhood coming to floor, which Virginians don't want, you would not have seen an ultrasound bill come to the floor, which Virginians don't want."
But Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst, said that if the public perceives the Democrats trying to extract politically what they couldn't get from the November elections, it could come back to bite them.
"The notion that the state budget should be held up to equalize representation on committees I think is a tough sell to the public,” he said. “That's an 'inside baseball' argument."
Mr. Holsworth said that for Democrats, it may be best to leave well enough alone after last week's defeat of a personhood measure that would define life as beginning at conception and the watering down of a bill that would require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before having an abortion.
The ultrasound proposal was lampooned on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," while "Saturday Night Live" poked fun at both the ultrasound bill and the personhood measure.
"At the moment, I think the Democrats are winning the other arguments because their positions are resonating with a significant portion of the population," Mr. Holsworth said.
U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine, though in the midst of a statewide tour holding business roundtables to emphasize economic issues, took time out last week to hold a conference call criticizing the social legislation that Republicans have pushed in the assembly this year.
"What we're seeing in Richmond now is not what Virginians expect from their leaders," said Mr. Kaine, a Democrat. "What's happening in Richmond right now is bad for Virginia women, it's bad for Virginia's image, and it's bad for Virginia's businesses."
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican and sponsor of the failed personhood amendment, is running for the seat as well. Republican George Allen, has come out in favor of the measure and said he supports federal personhood legislation.
Mr. Kaine also said that business owners are tired of partisan games and distractions — which is precisely what Republicans are charging Senate Democrats with in blocking passage of the state budget.
"The most important issue that the General Assembly will deal with this year is the adoption of the state budget, and everything else we do will pale, quite frankly, in comparison to the adoption of the state budget," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican. "I would suggest that what they've done … is horrible policy. It's probably worse politics, because this is not what the people of Virginia [want]."
And Mr. Holsworth said it would be difficult for Democrats to sustain the unity they have demonstrated thus far in the fight.
"They have to worry about potentially squandering some of the [momentum] that they've gained over the past week," he said.
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