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Va. Senate organizing fight could be a showstopper

Tuesday - 1/10/2012, 5:03pm  ET

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By BOB LEWIS
AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. - Democrats will let Republicans draw first blood in an opening-day General Assembly showdown over whether an evenly split Senate will share power or the GOP will assert a majority.

If Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling votes with his party, as he intends, to break a 20-20 partisan tie in the Senate, a month-old lawsuit lying dormant in a Richmond courthouse comes back to life to challenge Bolling's authority.

In December, a judge refused to preempt Bolling's vote to give the GOP a majority, ruling that no harm had been done and it's premature to intervene unless Bolling acts.

As late as Tuesday afternoon, some Democrats were still trying to appeal to Republicans to share power by evenly apportioning seats on Senate committees and appointing co-chairmen to rule them instead of stacking them with GOP majorities.

But Republicans, infused with a handful of conservatives elected in November when the GOP achieved parity with Democrats in the 40-member Senate, have not budged. Not even the remaining GOP moderates who once worked hand-in-hand with Democrats are inclined to broker a power-sharing.

In the House, Republicans hold their largest majority ever _ 68 of the 100 seats.

Presumptive Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City County, said his party has the advantage and will press it, starting with the opening of the session at noon Wednesday.

"If there has been the extension by a Republican in the Senate of any offer to throw them (Democrats) a bone, no one has as yet shared that with me," Norment said after a Capitol steps news conference with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Republican delegates and senators.

Norment said there will be Republican majorities on all 10 standing Senate committees and each will be chaired by a Republican. But he downplayed the prospect of an opening-day rhetorical food fight in the traditionally staid, clubby Senate.

"My goal tomorrow is to minimize tensions and make sure that there's not a spectacle that's insulting to the institution," he said.

Bolling was equally blunt about Wednesday's Republican objective.

"We believe we can organize with a Republican majority and intend to do that," he said. "We will get through the Senate organization tomorrow. Not everybody is going to be happy with it."

Democrats were still trying as Tuesday wore on, however, before the 2012 session convenes at noon Wednesday.

"I think Republicans know that a majority of people in Virginia don't want one party to be dominant. They want their legislators to work together and share power," said Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudoun.

Some senior Democrats, however, seemed resigned to their new minority status after four years of controlling the Senate.

"What can you do? They've got 21 votes unless somebody doesn't show up," Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Tuesday. "We'll just have to see."

On Monday, when House and Senate GOP leaders unveiled a plan to heed the written legislative timetable for enacting a new budget _ something that last happened 12 years ago _ outgoing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William, lurked in the rear of the room amid reporters, speaking only when invited by Norment.

Saslaw, Herring and other Democrats say a rumored Democratic walk-out _ departing the state the way Democratic lawmakers did in Wisconsin last year _ won't happen.

"That doesn't accomplish a thing," Herring said.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin, the plaintiff in the Richmond Circuit Court lawsuit seeking a restraining order against Bolling's vote, said there's no way to arrange an emergency hearing quickly enough after Bolling votes to stop the Republican power grab in its tracks. Besides, he noted, judges are loath to tell officials in the legislative or executive branch of government how they can carry out their duties.

McEachin's complaint contends Bolling, the Senate's presiding officer, can't vote on organizing the Senate because he's not elected to the Senate, but rather elected statewide to the executive branch of government.

Herring said floor speeches appealing to logic and fairness seem the most likely response. And the Democrats have a few bargaining chips.

Bolling has conceded that Virginia's Constitution forbids him from voting on the most important piece of legislation in any session: the state budget. Because legislation fails on a tie vote, at least one Democrat would have to side with the GOP in early March to pass a budget drafted by a Republican governor and legislative majority.

"That seems to be our best leverage now," Herring said.

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