- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

RICHMOND — The General Assembly’s Republican Caucus yesterday reached a consensus on extending the session until Tuesday to allow negotiators to reach an agreement on the budget, the House’s chief budget writer said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. said Republicans will bring the proposal to a vote today. The 60-day session is scheduled to adjourn by midnight.

A two-thirds vote in both chambers is needed to extend the session.

The assembly’s nine budget negotiators have been deadlocked in trying to reconcile their differences over the budget. The Senate wants to raise sales and income taxes, the House does not.

Their entrenched differences came to the fore during a negotiating session Thursday night in Mr. Callahan’s ninth-floor library. At 9:30 p.m., about half of the negotiators — all senators — weren’t even in the room.

The House’s five negotiators talked about everything except the elephant in the room — the budget stalemate.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, a Newport News Republican who had been up since 5:30 a.m. to work on the numbers, tapped his knee with a ruler. Delegate Lacey E. Putney stretched out with his feet on the table, swapping lawyer jokes with fellow lawyer Delegate Johnny S. Joannou.

Mr. Callahan, Fairfax Republican, was more interested in the score of the University of Virginia-Clemson University men’s basketball game, asking for updates from the red-eyed lobbyists waiting on his couch for budget news. (UVa. won.)

The Senate negotiators had left the room to hammer out details of a two-page House proposal for bringing the House’s and the Senate’s budgets closer together, and it became clear to the reporters and lobbyists in the room that budget negotiations aren’t pretty.

Pointing to a pink splotch on his white shirt, Mr. Putney joked with budget staffers.

“Talk about being frugal — I’ve saved some of my strawberry jelly for tomorrow,” the Bedford independent said.

The delegates started to get antsy as the senators’ half-hour break stretched beyond 50 minutes.

“It was only a two-page letter. … You would have thought it was a 50-page brief,” said Mr. Joannou, Portsmouth Democrat.

When the senators returned at last, the nine lawmakers bandied about the numbers 128 million, 87 million, 15 million (as in dollars) while they scrutinized a spreadsheet.

After more than three hours since the 7 p.m. start of the meeting, it looked as if the negotiators had reached a consensus on part of the budget — a caboose bill that ties up loose ends in the fiscal 2004 budget.

They stood up, laughed, shook hands. Mr. Callahan announced: “We need to get it out that we met one deadline. We can call this a victory and go home.”

No such luck. Half an hour after most reporters and lobbyists had trickled out of the room, the negotiators rescinded the deal they had worked out.

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