- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

RICHMOND — Partisan wrangling over procedural rules dominated most of the opening day of the Virginia General Assembly yesterday after lawmakers welcomed 17 freshmen to the House of Delegates.

The 60-day legislative session got off to a raucous start in the House and Senate. Each chamber this year will hold meetings in the cramped Patrick Henry Building as the state Capitol, where the legislature usually meets, undergoes renovations.

The first day in the House was marked with parliamentary maneuvers that in the end gave Republicans more power over legislative bills. In turn, Democrats accused Republicans of using “Tom DeLay-style politics.”

“These changes are not designed to let in sunlight,” said House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, Richmond Democrat. “It’s not about what’s convenient for us. … It’s about the people’s business. Why are we hiding something from them?”

Republicans changed the rules governing the session, counting the chamber’s three independents as their own for the purposes of assigning committee seats. The move denied Democrats one more seat on some committees, even though they increased their numbers in recent elections.

The change also allows subcommittees to kill bills so that the full committees can focus on “those bills which actually stand a chance of becoming the law of the commonwealth,” House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith said.

As of yesterday, more than 1,000 bills have been introduced.

Democrats argued the rule change would allow for two delegates to kill a bill in a vote that is not recorded for the permanent record, disenfranchising thousands of voters.

“Subcommittees become a black hole for bills,” said Delegate Kenneth R. Melvin, Portsmouth Democrat.

Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican, reminded Democrats that Republicans were not treated with respect for more than a century when Democrats were the majority party. Republicans’ bills were sent to committees that didn’t exist, and their members were assigned to committees that never met, he said.

“Our party has been very fair with respect to these rules,” said Delegate Clifford L. Athey Jr., Front Royal Republican.

Delegate Ward L. Armstrong, Henry Democrat, disagreed: “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” The House voted 58-39 to adopt the new rules, with one Democrat — Delegate Joseph P. Johnson Jr., of Abingdon — and two independents siding with Republicans.

There are 56 Republicans, 40 Democrats and three independents in the House, which has one open seat.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans in the Senate tried to strip Republican Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. from his chairmanship of the powerful Education and Health Committee to punish him for running for governor as an independent last year.

Those efforts failed on a 19-20 vote, with four Republicans siding with the chamber’s 16 Democrats to save Mr. Potts.

“He did it legally and ethically, and no one should be penalized for something like that,” said Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, who voted in favor of Mr. Potts keeping the chairmanship. “It disturbs the decorum of the chamber.” Earlier, lawmakers unanimously re-elected William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, as House speaker.

Also yesterday, the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted 18-4 in favor of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The amendment is expected to pass both the House and Senate and then will go before voters in November.

Last night, outgoing Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, delivered his final State of the Commonwealth address, in which he praised lawmakers for putting aside “shrill and divisive” partisanship to work with him.

Mr. Warner’s lieutenant governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, will be inaugurated as governor Saturday in Williamsburg. Mr. Kaine will deliver his own State of the Commonwealth address next week.

In a speech marked with applause and a few emotional pauses, Mr. Warner said the $1.38 billion tax increase he championed in 2004 restored Virginia’s fiscal integrity and prepared the state for a “brighter future.” He urged lawmakers to adopt his proposed $72 billion budget, which includes funds for transportation, research and development and clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay.

“None of these are my priorities alone, or Governor Kaine’s priorities alone,” said Mr. Warner, who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. “My hope is that they are your priorities, and that you will see them as the people’s priorities.”

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