RICHMOND—With the same 20-plus-one majority that fueled Republicans’ claim to power two years ago, Senate Democrats on Tuesday muscled new rules through the Senate that give Democrats control of the body.
One day after the 11-vote special-election victory of Democrat Lynwood Lewis in the 6th Senate District, Democrats changed committee makeup and put Democrats in charge of Senate committees.
Doing so will pave the way for Democratic priorities, particularly Medicaid expansion, which senators said will likely show up in a Democrat-written Senate budget.
Defending their maneuver, Democrats repeatedly invoked the way Republicans took control in 2012, when the Senate was at 20–20 and then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling was the tie-breaking vote for Republicans.
Now it’s 20–20 with a Democratic lieutenant governor.
In 2012, Democrats decried the Republicans’ move as a “power grab” that was unfair in an evenly split body. They went so far as to file a lawsuit over it.
On Tuesday, they said they were simply doing unto others as had been done unto them.
“I think that we certainly have been every bit as fair to the Republicans as they were to us,” said Sen. Dick Saslaw, D–Fairfax. “By and large it’s been as fair as it was two years ago at this time. We’re continuing the tradition started two years ago of fairness.”
He told reporters that the Democrats, in revamping Senate committee membership, used roughly the same partisan proportions as Republicans used two years ago.
“2012 set precedent,” said Sen. Don McEachin, D–Henrico. “All we did was replicate what they did.”
Republicans, though, said it’s different this time, largely because now it’s in the middle of a four-year Senate term, rather than at the beginning when committee assignments or rules changes are usually made.
“This is absolutely unprecedented. Do not try to cloak it in the custom, usage and tradition of the Senate,” said Sen. Tommy Norment, R–James City.
Norment said the Senate should be embarrassed, and chastised his colleagues for the way in which they seized power. But, he said, Republicans won’t react the way Democrats did in 2012.
“We are not going to sit here for 58 days and block a budget and not offer any alternative approach and just say no no no no,” Norment said. “We are not going to be the obstructionists.”
Republicans saved much of their protest for a new rule change from Democrats that allows any Senate bill that is substantially amended by the House to be diverted to the Senate Rules Committee, rather than to the full Senate or to a committee that deals with that bill’s subject matter.
Democrats said it was prompted by the way a 2011 bill that added new restrictions to abortion clinics was passed. In that case, a House amendment was made to a Senate bill that then came straight back to the full Senate and passed. They swore it would rarely be used.
Republicans weren’t comforted; Sen. Walter Stosch, R–Chesterfield, called it “one of the most dangerous amendments” he’s seen.
“What this does is it quashes the bicameral nature of this legislature,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford. “Every one of us in here was elected to come here and be a voice Take us off the committees, that’s fine I understand that. That’s your prerogative as the majority party. But don’t injure the voters of Virginia, and that’s what you’re doing with this amendment.”
Some Republicans said the new rule was simply a way for Democrats to avoid taking hard votes.
Democrats said Republicans misunderstood the point of the new rule.
“It’s not a veto, it’s not a super-senator, there’s still committee action that has to take place,” McEachin said.
Democrats now control the committees, and Republicans lost seats on several of them. Stuart will no longer serve on the General Laws and Commerce and Labor committees, although he’s now on the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee.
Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, loses his seat on the Courts committee and the General Laws committee, and goes to the Local Government Committee.
Democrats appointed co-chairs of just one committee—the powerful budget-writing Finance Committee, which will be jointly run by Democratic Sen. Chuck Colgan and Republican Stosch.
Asked if Medicaid expansion will be in a budget written by Senate Democrats, Saslaw said it was “probably a good bet.”
Of all the Democrats’ priorities, Saslaw added, “the biggest one is Medicaid expansion. It is a very big goal.”
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who has the critical tie-breaking vote that helped pass the Democrats’ new rules Tuesday, cannot vote on budget bills. But some Senate Republicans have been supportive of Medicaid expansion.
Saslaw also said that under Democratic control, school charter bills won’t get far. And he intends to defund the statewide school district that former Gov. Bob McDonnell pushed for as a tool to take over failing schools.
Asked if Democrats plan to revive any of their bills that Republicans have already killed this session, McEachin said they need time to talk about it. But Sen. Janet Howell, D–Fairfax, whispered, “Dream Act,” a reference to legislation to let teenagers who aren’t citizens but were raised in Virginia qualify for in-state tuition at colleges.
Democrats may be able to press more of their own priorities through the Senate now, but that changes nothing in the House, where Republicans still hold a strong majority and will likely thwart some Senate Democratic goals—particularly Medicaid expansion, something strongly opposed by House Republican leaders.
McEachin said Democrats plan to seek common ground with the House.
Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245