- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell is winning praise from fellow Republicans, who say his resolve in passing a transportation bill forced Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to stop pushing for massive statewide tax increases and should silence the pundits who questioned his political will.

“Certainly from a House of Delegates perspective, I equated him to the player-coach,” said Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican. “He really did it all. He set the strategy from the beginning.”

Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican who helped facilitate the transportation talks, called the tentative deal a “terrific policy and political achievement” for Mr. Howell.

“The speaker was the key leader in ensuring that we had comprehensive transportation reform this session,” he said. “He understood it was critical to keeping a strong business climate in Virginia and that voters were tired of excuses as to why we couldn’t get it done.”

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, released his rewrite Monday of the Republican-written transportation deal that left intact much of what Mr. Howell’s leadership team coveted — a multibillion-dollar borrowing package, a modest increase in car-registration fees, and regional taxing authorities for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

“He may have swallowed a little bit of a pill, but he didn’t get a spoonful or sugar,” said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “He got a pound-full of sugar.”

Now, Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who have wrestled for years over raising money for road and rail projects, say they are “optimistic” the most comprehensive transportation-reform bill since 1986 will be approved when the General Assembly returns to Richmond for a one-day session Wednesday to consider Mr. Kaine’s revisions.

“I think this is the biggest win for Republicans since welfare reform, and that was 12 years ago,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican. “It’s also one of the first times the House and Senate Republicans worked together. Right now, there is a really good atmosphere in the Republican Party.”

The tentative agreement marks a recent shift in Virginia politics.

For nine months last year, House Republicans fought off the combined efforts of Mr. Kaine, Democrats and Senate Republicans to increase statewide taxes for road and rail projects.

Last March, Mr. Kaine’s political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, flooded the districts of House Republicans with automated telephone calls and radio ads blaming them for the transportation deadlock.

The move backfired, Republicans say, unifying the party and setting the stage for negotiations this year.

“In light of all that pressure, we all hung together,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “I think it established the fact that you were not going to [get] a transportation plan with massive tax increases, and we were not going to roll over for anything that came down the pike.”

Mr. Howell said he entered the year “hopeful” that the powerful group of Senate Republicans led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester of Stafford County would rethink its political approach.

The same group — dubbed the Gang of Five — helped former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, steer a $1.3 billion tax increase through the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2004, the year Mr. Howell became speaker. Since then, conservative Republicans have criticized the group for diluting the party’s message of lower taxes, and elevating Mr. Warner, at least for a while, into a potential presidential contender.

To the delight of many Republicans, the group fell apart in January under the combined pressure of the fall election and the mushrooming frustration of residents sick of sitting on Virginia’s traffic-choked roads.

“That was huge,” Mr. Griffith said. “It allowed us to work together as a cohesive group, and that was the reason we felt like we could compromise.”

Political observers and some lawmakers say the tentative deal should, at the very least, hamper Democrats from lambasting Republicans as incompetent leaders in the coming election, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs.

Sources close to Mr. Gillespie say he thinks the agreement is vital, given the Senate majority elected this fall and House members elected in 2009 will oversee redistricting in 2011.

Historically, the majority party has carved out politically safe districts to improve its chances of maintaining a strong hold on the legislative agenda and congressional seats.

“Since 2004, the speaker has become much more pragmatic, which I think in his job you have to be,” said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican. “He has to listen to both sides and look at the political realities of a shrinking Republican majority. We had a 65-seat majority [in the House] at one time. Now we have 57. After the redistricting, you are going to see a drastically reconfigured political landscape.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide