Va. Dems plan suit to push GOP Senate power sharing

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Democrats said Monday they intend to file a lawsuit challenging the right of Republicans to seize a majority in the evenly divided state Senate.

Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw and Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, said they will ask a court to decide whether Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling can cast the deciding vote in organizing the new Senate that takes office Jan. 11.

Bolling and Senate GOP leaders plan to use Bolling's tie-breaking vote to claim a majority, including the right to dominate and chair standing committees.

Republicans gained two seats in the Nov. 8 state Senate elections, ending a 4-year-old Democratic majority and creating a 20-20 split in the 40-member chamber. Republicans contend Bolling's vote gives them the 21st they need to organize the Senate as they please.

McEachin said Virginia's Constitution is unclear whether the lieutenant governor, an official of the executive branch of government who presides over the Senate, can vote on Senate organizational matters because he's not a senator.

While the right of lieutenant governors to break Senate ties on general legislation is unchallenged, Saslaw said lieutenant governors in the past have declined to vote on the state budget and judicial elections. In those cases, Saslaw said, the Constitution specifies a vote only "by a majority of those elected" for passage. They contend the same is true in organizing the Senate.

"This lieutenant governor says there's nothing he can't vote on. So it's not just a matter of this year; it ought to get settled for all time, and that's the purpose behind this," Saslaw said in a telephone news conference Monday morning.

The issue has never been tested in court.

After the 1995 legislative elections resulted in 20-20 parity in the Senate, Democrats intended to use the tie-breaking vote of then-Lt. Gov. Donald Beyer, a Democrat, to hold on to power.

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