RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Democrats reshaped the power structure of the Virginia Senate on Tuesday after winning a close special election that gave their party narrow control of the upper chamber.
Over the strenuous objections of Republicans, Democrats flipped party control of several senate committees. The move effectively gives Democrats greater ability to kill legislation they disagree with, while giving legislation they like a better chance at Senate passage.
Topping the list of legislative priorities this session for Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, is expanding Medicaid eligibility.
The Senate is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats, with newly elected Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam giving Democrats the edge on tie-breaking votes.
The Senate voted along party lines to enact the changes Tuesday after several hours of sometimes heated debate.
Republicans decried changing committee assignments mid-way through a four-year Senate term, saying the actions were a naked power grab unprecedented in the chamber’s history.
Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment said his Democratic counterparts were causing a “seismic shift” in the way the body operates and should be embarrassed by the move.
But Democrats said they were following a precedent set by Republicans two years ago, when a split chamber led by a Republican lieutenant governor placed committee assignments in firm GOP control.
Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said his party was being “every bit as fair to Republicans … as they were to us.”
Democrats also passed a new legislative procedure that would limit the House’s ability to get a full Senate vote on legislation amended with controversial provisions. Saslaw said the move was in response to an anti-abortion bill passed by the General Assembly in 2011, which succeeded with the help of two Democratic senators.
The dust-up in the Senate won’t change the makeup in the House, where Republicans enjoy a 2-to-1 margin of control.
Control of the Senate was decided by the slimmest of margins. On Monday, Lynwood W. Lewis prevailed in a recount to win Northam’s former Senate seat and give Democrats control of the Senate. Lewis won by only 11 votes.