Virginia Republicans were hopeful that a weekend away from the recently toxic environs of Richmond would help thaw a protracted stalemate over the state's proposed two-year, $85 billion spending plan. But the weekend arrests of more than 30 activists protesting anti-abortion legislation has only fueled the partisan flames that have engulfed the Capitol.
About 1,000 demonstrators assembled Saturday in front of the Capitol Bell Tower, and later moved to the steps of the Capitol. When demonstrators refused to leave, more than 30 people were arrested by the state's Capitol police, who were outfitted in riot gear, toted semiautomatic weapons and had guard dogs at the ready.
Democrats on Monday pounced on what they saw as overly aggressive police maneuvers, likening the scene to 1960s-era demonstrations.
"Our state Capitol is becoming an armed garrison," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat. "Not since the 'Massive Resistance' days in the '60s have I seen such a disgraceful display of excessive police presence in my state."
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said that in 37 years in office, he's never seen such a display of force.
"I think I've about heard it all," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, though, called such statements "exceedingly disingenuous," pointing to Democrats' continued focus on social issues, notably a measure that would require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before they have an abortion.
"They are passed, they are gone, and they are in no way tied to the fiscal decisions this body needs to make," he said, referring to an ongoing stalemate over the state's two-year $85 billion spending plan.
Democrats, displeased with Republicans' organizing the chamber as a working majority despite a 20-20 split, twice have voted in lock step against versions of the budget. The tiebreaking vote of Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, used to help the GOP assign Republican majorities to every major committee, does not extend to the budget.
Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, quickly disabused Mr. Norment of the notion that the party would suddenly go silent on social issues, which have fast become a rallying cry for the party both in the state and around the country.
"If you think that the social issues are not going to be the emphasis of the upcoming budget debate, then you are sorely mistaken," he said.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, welcomed residents to exercise their First Amendment rights at the Bell Tower — as he did at a school-choice rally earlier in the session — but he said Democrats would likely want to rethink their Monday words, calling them "very disappointing."
"Capitol police are in charge of Capitol ground," he said. "They're outstanding professionals. They're well-trained."
He said he understood it's late in the session, that legislators are worn out and that there is still much to do, but that attacking law-enforcement officials for doing their jobs was beyond the pale.
"It really has crossed the line," he said. "It really is way over-the-top. I call on them to apologize. ... I would hope they realize how far out of line they are when they say things like that."
Mr. McDonnell reiterated his concern that Democrats were still holding up the budget process in a political dispute over representation on committees. He called the spat over committee assignments "below the dignity of the Virginia people" and "not the Virginia way."
Earlier on Monday, Mr. Saslaw and Mr. McEachin responded to a letter the governor had written to them last week asking, essentially, what it would take to get Democrats to vote for the budget.
"A well-put query, the responses to which we believe have fallen on deaf ears," they wrote. "Clearly, the answer lies in the best interests of Virginians, not the radical agenda of your party."
They reiterated that Democrats would not vote for a budget that, for example, would bump 4,500 elderly people off Medicaid and fund K-12 education below 2007 levels. They said they also object to using $69 million of settlement money from a lawsuit over illicit foreclosure practices to supplement localities and brace for potential federal cutbacks, rather than put it directly toward people hit by the housing crisis.
"We are eager to work with you to craft a budget that works for all in our Commonwealth," they said in the letter, "rather than simply scoring partisan political points."
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