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Va. assembly adjourns Saturday, returns for budget

Saturday - 3/10/2012, 7:24am  ET

By BOB LEWIS
AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia's General Assembly will adjourn on schedule Saturday without finishing a budget, giving legislators a breather from a session more charged with partisan enmity than any in memory while an embryonic state financing plan awaits their return in a spring special session.

The House and Senate unanimously approved an amendment to the General Assembly's procedural resolution on Friday that ensures that the two budget bills will not perish with the end of the regular session.

The House and Senate will adjourn their fractious regular session and immediately reconvene in a special session that will go into a recess of undetermined duration.

It marks the third time in the past eight years Virginia has had to convene a rump session to finish its two-year budget. Special budget sessions lasted until May in 2004, and two years later, a new budget was not finalized until two days before the old one expired.

"I think there is a sense, collectively within the Senate, that we are approaching a deadline and there is a certain emergency associated with it," said Sen. Thomas K. Norment, the leader of the Senate's ruling Republicans. "I think that realization of the compression of time has given everybody a wakeup call."

With a tenuous truce in place since Thursday between feuding Senate Republicans and Democrats, legislative leaders huddled early Friday and chose not to condense a budget workload that normally takes more than a week into a few pressured, politically charged days or even hours.

That came after two months of partisan vitriol unprecedented in Virginia's clubby Senate and a wave of conservative legislation that began on the session's opening day when the chamber's 20 Republicans plus Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling seized power over the bitter objections of the Senate's 20 Democrats.

The rhetoric cooled after Sen. Charles J. Colgan, a reserved and moderate Democrat from Prince William, broke his silence Thursday and scolded both parties for a level of intemperance that threatened to only harden partisan animosities and poison budget talks for months. His most powerful statement, however, was to admonish fellow Senate Democrats that they won't get all they want from the budget.

"They probably need time to cool off a little bit," said Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. But then he took a poke at the Senate Democrats: "Everybody knows this is really about their discomfort over committee assignments."

Twice in the past two weeks, the Senate's united Democrats held firm in killing the initial Senate and House versions of the budget. The state Constitution requires the votes of 21 senators to pass appropriations bills, preventing Bolling from breaking party-line tied votes for the GOP, as he has on 24 occasions this session.

A week ago, the House revived its version of the budget and rushed it over to the Senate where it sat dormant since. With brooding Senate Democrats demanding GOP concessions as diverse as greater power sharing and more money to offset sharp urban toll road increases, the bill has yet to come before the Senate Finance Committee.

By Friday morning, Colgan said, Democrats had reluctantly accepted the inevitability of compromise with the Republicans.

"I met with the caucus this morning and everybody seemed to be _ I can't say real enthusiastic about it _ but seemed to be ready to go ahead with it," he said. "There was no more real strong opposition there."

Colgan, who chaired the powerful Finance Committee through last year, can decide the issue all by himself. He represents the one breakaway vote the GOP would need, and he reminded his caucus that he would have to relent and support a budget.

"When we get to the point that I have the choice to decide the conference committee report, then I'm going to have to do it if we've met most of what you want," Colgan told said Friday.

The Senate Democrats' budget demands were included in a letter sent to McDonnell on Wednesday. In it, they listed new spending totaling nearly $450 million annually. McDonnell's written reply Friday scolded the Democrats for presenting budget demands too late to resolve in the regular session, and challenged them to specify whether they would raise taxes or cut programs elsewhere to keep the budget balanced.

The budget isn't the only unresolved legislation that will await the special session, all of them linked to funding provided in the budget. Work is unfinished on bills that would determine whether additional money for transportation comes from indexing gasoline taxes to costs per gallon instead of the flat per-gallon rate of 17 1/2 cents per gallon. The question of who pays a larger share of contributions into the underfunded Virginia Retirement System is not settled. And vacant judgeships must be filled.

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