RICHMOND — Call it an $85 billion game of chicken.
With one week left before the scheduled adjournment of the 2012 General Assembly, Democratic and Republican legislators have yet to agree on a spending plan for the next two years and are digging in their heels, apparently hoping that the other side will blink first.
After Senate Democrats twice blocked votes on the proposed biennial budget, the House last week passed its own version again on a 75-22 vote, giving the Senate another shot at getting one through before the scheduled March 10 adjournment.
The Senate's 20 Democrats have hung together and successfully managed to prevent a budget bill from passing in a chamber with 20 Republicans. The party is calling for more equitable representation on committees after Republicans used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote on the first day of session to organize as a working majority. But Democrats have insisted that the budget proposal does not provide enough money for education, health care or transportation.
"There's a whole lot that has to be done before we reach an agreement," said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. "I think they have to realize that we're not pulling a publicity stunt."
Beyond budgetary matters, Democrats also have railed against conservative measures such as legislation that mandates women undergo ultrasounds before they have an abortion, bills that would tighten voter identification requirements and another that would provide tax credits for businesses that provide scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools.
The ultrasound measure, which is on its way to the desk of Gov. Bob McDonnell, as well as the failed "personhood" measure that would define life as beginning at conception drew national attention — and mockery.
"They have decided to run the government without us," said Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat. "Look at the mess they have made,"
Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, says the questions about such legislation have been asked and answered, so they should not be linked to negotiations on the budget.
"That's not part of the discussion on the budget," he said. "The legislature's already spoken on that.
"If people want a different view, then they can work hard and elect a new lieutenant governor. Lieutenant governors break ties."
Mr. McDonnell dashed off a sharply worded letter to Mr. Saslaw and Mr. McEachin on Friday urging them to put policy ahead of politics and send him a budget to sign.
"When one looks at the great risk involved to over 8 million people, it is inconceivable that the legislature would purposely want to endanger the passage of the commonwealth's budget, simply because of political discontent by one party," he wrote. "When elections are over, it is time to govern."
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, reiterated Friday that Republicans would be available "morning, noon and night" to negotiate budget proposals, but that Democrats' demands for more representation on committees were purely political and should not be part of the discussions.
"The ball is literally in their court," he said. "The House has done its job once again. ... Hopefully, after some of our Senate friends have had the opportunity to go home for the weekend and listen to their constituents, perhaps the rhetoric being scaled down a little bit, we can start [having] a discussion on how to put together the most important piece of legislation the General Assembly has."
Though there were no outward signs that anything would be different when the Senate takes up the bill Monday or Tuesday, Mr. McDonnell said he was hopeful about having something passed by the time the assembly adjourns.
"There's no need to start a public alarm yet," he said. "Before we start ratcheting up the rhetoric, I think people need to just realize we know we're going to have a budget, we know we've got to work together to get it, and I'm going to do my best to bring people together. That's what I've done the last two years."
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