RICHMOND — About a quarter of the way through the state's General Assembly session, Republicans thus far have flexed their strengthened muscles to advance legislation on redistricting, abortion and gun rights — with many Democrats left simply to stand and protest.
The GOP's force was on full display last week when a bill on voter identification staunchly opposed by Democratic Party leadership sailed through the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
The bill would provisionally count the ballot of voters who cannot produce identification at the polls. Right now voters can simply sign a sworn statement attesting they are who they say they are.
"I don't know why we have this bill in front of us if we don't have documented cases of voter fraud or problems at the polling place," said Delegate Kenneth C. Alexander, Norfolk Democrat. "This bill looks like it attempts to suppress a certain group of people or groups of people from voting. Usually it's the elderly, the young, or students, the working poor and racial minorities."
Despite the opposition, the bill passed 16-6, with Delegate Johnny S. Joannou, Chesapeake Democrat, the lone crossover.
Similar bills have passed the House before, but this year the voter ID measure has emerged as a symbol of the frustrations of Democrats, who plan an opposition rally Tuesday in Capitol Square.
Republicans on the committee are calling the bill a simple, common-sense measure to keep intact integrity at the polls.
"I'm trying to understand what the controversy of the bill is," said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican. "If three people come and say they're Dave Albo, all this bill says is we're going to take two Dave Albos, we're going to set 'em aside and look at 'em, and find out whether or not they're legit. And if they are legit, they get counted, and if they're not legit, they don't get counted."
Virginia Republicans have a super majority in the House and control of every key committee in the Senate, which often has made it seem as if they have extra votes lying around.
For example, a contentious GOP-sponsored congressional redistricting map was quickly passed and signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, after the legislature spent the better part of last year in a stalemate on the issue. And a bill that would require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before having an abortion has cleared the same Senate Education and Health Committee that killed it last year, when Democrats held a lopsided 10-5 majority.
Senate Caucus Chairman Ryan T. McDougle, Hanover Republican, said he has been pleased with the results thus far, attributing it in part to an organizational shakeup Republicans implemented at the start of session.
"Unlike in previous years, where bills weren't heard if the majority party or the chairman didn't want them to be or sent to special subcommittees never to be seen again, we're seeing bills, even ones the chair or majority party don't like," he said. "I think there has been a real change in culture in how we're doing things. If you look at the committees ... they're representative of the body. They're not slanted 10-5 to one party."
Mr. McDougle also noted that major GOP-sponsored bills that have advanced, such as a repeal of the state's one-handgun-a-month law, have garnered bipartisan support.
Still, Democrats used their 20 votes in the Senate last week to win a standoff that had threatened to prevent the body from conducting any other business. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, has ruled that his all-important tie-breaking vote does not extend to such issues as the state budget or electing judges.
"I think it's the acknowledgment of some Republicans that 20 does not equal 21, and that the Senate is meant to be a collaborative body, and we were able to come together on that issue," said Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin of Henrico. "That holds true for the conduct of the entire Senate."
He also predicted that Democrats will look back on the session and say they successfully advanced their priorities, despite the makeup of the legislature.
For example, several bills that would repeal a state ban against hunting on Sundays were rolled into one, carried by Sen. Ralph S. Northam, Norfolk Democrat, easily cleared the Senate.
But advancing such bipartisan bills is one thing. Blocking Republican priorities is another.
Delegate Jeion A. Ward, Hampton Democrat, gave an impassioned speech on the House floor last week decrying the lack of female voices heard on a bill to repeal the state's mandate that girls receive a vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV) before they enter the sixth grade.
"I was so disturbed when debate was cut off before we had a chance to say anything," she said. "And just remember — it's not over until a woman has had her voice heard also."
Delegate Kathy J. Byron, Campbell Republican and sponsor of the measure, bristled at Ms. Ward's response.
"Perhaps I need to wear dresses more often," she said before the body passed the bill on a 62-34 vote. "The last time I checked, I didn't think I was a man."
The measure passed on an almost-identical 61-33 vote last year, only to be killed in the Democrat-controlled Senate Education and Health committee — on which Republicans now hold an 8-7 advantage.
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