- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

RICHMOND House and Senate leaders said yesterday that Gov. Mark R. Warner's limited presence around the General Assembly is hurting his legislative agenda and straining his working relationship with the lawmakers.
"He is a nice fellow," said House Speaker William J. Howell, Fredericksburg Republican. "I have enjoyed getting to know him. But I am not sure with whom [Mr. Warner and his aides] are communicating."
Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico County Republican, said he has worked with the governor just once this year, on technology legislation.
"We are certainly not seeking to derail his agenda," he said. "We are not exactly sure what the totality of the agenda is. It seems to be somewhat fragmented."
Mr. Warner said the statements are just election-year politics and that he meets weekly with the leaders.
"The speaker cannot be seen working closely with me because of the politics in his own caucus," he said.
Mr. Warner also said he had a good working relationship with former Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. and hopes for a similar one when Mr. Howell becomes "more established."
Mr. Wilkins, a Republican who resigned last summer, was criticized for working closely with Mr. Warner. He supported Mr. Warner's effort to go forward with a transportation referendum.
Mr. Howell, who was elected House speaker at the beginning of this legislative session, said the Republican Party wants to work with Mr. Warner, but he has made little effort.
"I can assure you we don't sit down in the House caucus and say, 'OK, we are going to take a position against this bill because it's the governor's bill,'" he said. "It just doesn't happen that way. If one of his proposals failed, it's because either a majority of the people think it's a bad idea … or there is absolutely no effort to cultivate it."
Mr. Howell thinks the problem is less about politics and more about style, saying former Republican Gov. George Allen had a successful relationship with a predominantly Democratic legislature when he was in office during the mid-1990s.
"In his first two years, he did some remarkable things," Mr. Howell said. "He abolished parole [and implemented] welfare reform. So it can be done."
During those years, Democrats held a 52-to-47 majority in the House with one independent, and a 22-to-18 majority in the Senate.
Today, the Republicans hold a 64-to-34 majority in House with two independents, and a 23-to-17 majority in the Senate.
Mr. Warner further defended his record yesterday with a tally sheet that shows 36 of his 37 legislative initiatives so far have passed at least one chamber.
But the issues he seemed most passionate about a constitutional amendment allowing for a two-term governor and a seat-belt law have not been successful.
The House rejected the governor's term measure 51 to 49, and the House Transportation Committee killed the primary seat-belt law, despite its having passed in the Senate.
Other legislative leaders have been less critical of Mr. Warner, but said with or without his help they would pursue their own legislative agenda, including more restrictions on abortion and repealing the estate tax.
The abortion bills and estate-tax repeal have passed both chambers in various forms. Mr. Warner has pledged not to sign the estate-tax repeal, and he vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban last year.

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