RICHMOND — Republicans, as they promised they would, took control of the Virginia Senate on Wednesday with the help of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote and over the objections of Democrats that the move was both unjust and unconstitutional.
The normally routine task of organizing the House and Senate on the opening day of the General Assembly dragged on for the better part of the afternoon in the upper chamber, as both sides held fast to their positions.
Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. decried the charge that the GOP’s move was a “power grab,” saying that the new rules of the Senate were merely “a rearticulation of the Senate rules that we on this side think are appropriate.”
The James City Republican, however, was peppered with questions from Democrats who carved out specific arguments as to why, after adopting rules that were similar in nature in 2000, 2004 and 2008, they were getting an overhaul this year.
Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, pointed to a part removing a provision that committee members be selected in proportion to the number of senators of each party “as closely as is practicable.”
He noted the irony that during years of lopsided party splits, it was always a task to try to calculate the proportions. Now that the distribution is 50-50, it wouldn’t matter.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, whose lawsuit filed last month to prevent Mr. Bolling from casting votes on matters of organization was halted by a Richmond judge, moved that committees consist of 16 members apiece, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. That motion was defeated.
Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, argued that since Mr. Bolling was not a member of the Senate - as the lieutenant governor himself conceded in a recent memo - he could not break ties on matters such as organization.
“There’s nothing wrong with a tie vote. It simply means the matter fails,” Mr. Edwards said. “To tip the scales … would be grossly unfair to the citizens of Virginia who voted for a 20-20 split.”
“It would be grossly unfair to the collegial operations of this body,” he continued. “People do not like a power grab on the part of one party or another party.”
Mr. Norment, though, said Republicans would collaborate with their Democratic colleagues.
“We’re prepared to extend to you that legislative hand of fellowship to work together,” he said on the Senate floor. “I look forward to working with each and every one of you on that side of the aisle. I know that we will have disagreements, and that’s to be expected.”
Democrats were not satisfied with Republicans’ apportionment of committees either. The Rules Committee is stacked 12-4 with Republicans and Commerce & Labor is 10-6, while the GOP ceded control of the Committee on Local Government to the Democrats.
To make his point, Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, asked Mr. Norment if he would swap the number of Democrats on the Committee on Local Government with the number on the all-important Senate Finance Committee.
“I’ve been around along time,” Mr. Saslaw said. “And I just didn’t arrive here from Mars.”
“I have not had a single person since I’ve been in leadership say, ‘Saslaw, can you get me on local government?’ ” he added.
Democratic senators also mentioned the situation in 1996, when a 20-20 Senate forged a power-sharing agreement after then-Democrat Virgil Goode, Rocky Mount Democrat, threatened to bolt the party unless a compromise was reached.
“There was power sharing in 1996, there was power sharing in 1999, there ought to be power-sharing today,” Mr. McEachin said.
On Wednesday, however, there were no such Republican defectors, and Mr. Norment tried to disabuse Democrats of using that example to prove their point.
“That was not an act of anybody being magnanimous,” he said. “It is not out of fairness, it is not out of magnanimousness that we ended up [with] power sharing.”
Perhaps forestalling the inevitable, the Senate adjourned early until 1 p.m., only to gavel back into session just after 1:30 p.m.. Mr. Norment then moved that the Senate recess until 2:30 p.m. so the clerk’s office could finish printing copies of the new rules - complete with changes clearly marked so the GOP could not be accused of trickery. Mr. Bolling gaveled the body back into session at 2:46 p.m., at which point they finally took up the resolution.
And a cheery morning, when new senators were sworn in and legislators greeted one another with handshakes and backslaps, did not continue through the end of the afternoon.
“You will find that this is a very collegial body - most of the time,” Mr. Bolling said.