RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats had finally picked up momentum in the 2012 General Assembly session after helping beat back two high-profile abortion-related bills — momentum that last week's standoff over budget issues threatens to halt.
Senate Democrats voted in lock step against the body's budget proposal, which quickly shifted a narrative about the failure of a "personhood" initiative and the watering down of a bill that could have required invasive ultrasounds before abortions to one about obstructionism and petty partisan politics.
The Senate on Thursday voted 20-17 on the state's two-year budget, one short of passage, with three Democrats not voting.
The chamber is composed of 20 Republican and 20 Democrats. However, Republicans used the tie-breaking power of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling at the start of the General Assembly session to govern as a working majority, rebuffing Democrats' calls for a power-sharing arrangement.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, said members of his caucus will have policy discussions "morning, noon and night" with their Democratic counterparts but will not talk about the politics of committee assignments, which he said are behind the budget dispute.
"That decision has been made," he said.
Senate caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, insists the debate is about policy.
"Tommy wants to talk about power," he said. "We're talking about people. 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 the floor, which Virginians don't want. You would not have seen an ultrasound bill come to the floor, which Virginians don't want."
Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst, said 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."
To be sure, 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 after a spat with the legislature about his plans to cut the state's car tax. And three years later, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, ended up signing the state budget on June 25 after a protracted battle about his plan to pass $1.4 billion in new taxes to close a multibillion-dollar shortfall and preserve the states coveted AAA bond rating.
But those fights were not "saturated in partisan politics," Mr. Norment said.
Mr. Holsworth thinks Democrats now should leave well enough alone, after the personhood measure that would define life as beginning at conception was killed for the year and Republicans, at the behest of Gov. Bob McDonnell, watered down a bill that would require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before having an abortion.
Both proposals quickly drew national attention and late-night mockery; the ultrasound proposal was lampooned on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," while NBC's "Saturday Night Live" poked fun at both measures.
"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.
Tim Kaine, the top Democratic candidate in the tight race for a Senate seat in Virginia, also criticized the social issues that Republicans have pushed in the General Assembly this year.
"What were seeing in Richmond now is not what Virginians expect from their leaders," he said during a conference call with reporters. "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 also running for the Senate seat, left open by retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb. Republican George Allen, the GOP front-runner, has come out in favor of the measure and said he supports federal personhood legislation.
Mr. Kaine, who has spent time recently holding economic roundtable discussions across the state, also said business owners are tired of partisan games and distractions, which is 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," Mr. Bolling said. "I would suggest that what [Democrats] have done is horrible policy. It's probably worse politics because this is not what the people of Virginia" want.
Mr. Holsworth said Democrats will have difficulty sustaining the unity they have demonstrated thus far in the budget fight.
"They have to worry about potentially squandering some of the [momentum] that theyve gained over the past week," he said.
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