- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 6, 2013

RICHMOND — Virginia’s Republican House speaker on Wednesday ruled against a measure muscled through by Senate Republicans to redraw all 40 state Senate districts, defusing a partisan dispute that had threatened to stymie progress on major legislation.

House Speaker William J. Howell announced Wednesday that the vast Senate redistricting plan included in a Senate-passed amendment was not germane, or relevant, to the bill’s limited intent of making minor, technical changes to 39 House of Delegates districts.

The decision, announced on the House floor, cleared away a major provocation to the Senate’s 20 Democrats that risked a partisan legislative meltdown. They had threatened to deny the Senate’s 20 Republicans the necessary 21st vote to advance key initiatives, including transportation funding and the state budget.

On Jan. 21, Senate Republicans blindsided the Democrats when they took advantage of a longtime black lawmaker’s absence to attend President Obama’s inauguration to use their temporary numerical advantage to adopt a floor amendment from Sen. John C. Watkins, Powhatan Republican, to create a new black-majority district and effectively strengthen Republicans’ chances in other districts.

In a narrow and carefully worded decision, the speaker said a wholesale political overhaul of Senate districts was outside the bill’s limited original scope.

Because of that, he found the amendment Senate Republicans pushed through on a 20-19 vote when Democratic Sen. Henry L. Marsh III of Richmond was absent was not germane to the underlying bill. It strips the amendment from the bill and returns it to the Senate in its original form.

The ruling brought an instant sense of relief throughout the Capitol where, just one night before, partisan resentments had boiled over in red-faced Senate floor debate after Democrats held firm in defeating Republican transportation funding reform proposals.

Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said the speaker’s ruling was vital to breaking a legislative logjam.

“It was considerable because of the way this thing was sprung on us,” he said.

“I think we can work to get a transportation program with the speaker,” Mr. Saslaw of Fairfax said moments after Mr. Howell’s ruling. “We’ll get something that everybody can live with.”

The Northern Virginia lawmaker said Mr. Howell had shown political courage in ruling against the interests of his own party.

“Bill’s going to do what he thinks is right,” Mr. Saslaw said. “Ever since I’ve known him, that’s essentially what he’s done.”

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell welcomed the ruling and a subsequent thawing of resentments that threatened the last opportunity in his four-year term for a legislative legacy.

“With his ruling, concerns surrounding the process of this [redistricting] bill’s passage in the Senate are over. Now it is time for all legislators to focus on the pressing issues facing the General Assembly,” he said in a statement the administration released.

Senate Republicans, however, seethed over it and pledged new efforts to redraw Senate districts put in place two years ago.

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