POLITICS

Virginia House speaker voids Senate GOP 'ambush' redistricting scheme

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia's Republican House speaker on Wednesday ruled against a measure muscled through by Senate Republicans to redraw all 40 state Senate districts, defusing a partisan dispute that had threatened to stymie progress on major legislation.

House Speaker Bill Howell announced Wednesday that the vast Senate redistricting plan included in a Senate-passed amendment was not germane, or relevant, to the bill's limited intent of making minor, technical changes to 39 House of Delegates districts.

The decision, announced on the House floor, cleared away a major provocation to the Senate's 20 Democrats that risked a partisan legislative meltdown. They had threatened to deny the Senate's 20 Republicans the necessary 21st vote to advance key initiatives, including transportation funding and the state budget.

On Jan. 21, Senate Republicans blindsided the Democrats when they took advantage of a longtime black lawmaker's attendance of President Barack Obama's inauguration to use their temporary numerical advantage to adopt Republican Sen. John Watkins' floor amendment to create a new black-majority district and effectively strengthen Republicans' chances in other districts.

In a narrow and carefully worded decision, the speaker said a wholesale political overhaul of Senate districts was outside the bill's limited original scope.

Because of that, he found the amendment Senate Republicans pushed through on a 20-19 vote when Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh of Richmond was absent was not germane to the underlying bill. It strips the amendment from the bill and returns it to the Senate in its original form.

The ruling brought an instant sense of relief throughout the Capitol where, just one night before, partisan resentments had boiled over in red-faced Senate floor debate after Democrats held firm in defeating Republican transportation funding reform proposals.

Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said the speaker's ruling was vital to breaking a legislative logjam. "It was considerable because of the way this thing was sprung on us," he said.

"I think we can work to get a transportation program ... with the speaker," Saslaw said moments after Howell's ruling. "We'll get something that everybody can live with."

The northern Virginia lawmaker said Howell had shown political courage in ruling against the interests of his own party.

"Bill's going to do what he thinks is right," Saslaw said. "Ever since I've known him, that's essentially what he's done."

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell welcomed the ruling and a subsequent thawing of resentments that threatened the last opportunity in his four-year term for a legislative legacy.

"With his ruling, concerns surrounding the process of this (redistricting) bill's passage in the Senate are over. Now it is time for all legislators to focus on the pressing issues facing the General Assembly," he said in a statement the administration released.

Senate Republicans, however, seethed over it and pledged new efforts to redraw Senate districts put in place two years ago.

Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment of James City said he was "deeply disappointed by Speaker Howell's unilateral ruling."

"The Virginia Senate Republican Caucus remains committed to correcting the egregious hyper-partisan gerrymander that has resulted in the current tortuously drawn Senate districts," Norment said in a statement released through the caucus.

Those same districts, however, allowed Republicans to gain two previously Democratic Senate seats in the 2011 legislative elections and reduce what had been a Democratic majority to 20-20 parity. Despite the even split, Republicans seized operational Senate control through the tie-breaking vote of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who presides over Senate floor sessions.

In the poisoned partisan aftermath of the Jan. 21 ambush by Senate Republicans, Democrats said the action not only violated legislative precedents and decorum as well as a 2004 state constitutional amendment limiting redistricting to once every biennium in years ending with the numeral 1. They guaranteed a court challenge and signaled retaliatory blockades of Republican transportation and budget initiatives. They made good on the threat as recently as Tuesday night.

In an Associated Press interview, Howell said he was pressured within his party to let the amendment pass muster, but in the end felt bound to uphold the honor of House rules that make speakers the guardians of legislative integrity and fair play.

"There were a lot of people who wanted me to rule that the amendment was germane," Howell said. But rooting interests, he said, are secondary to consistently safeguarding the principle that prevents a bill from becoming a Trojan horse to achieve aims far different from its initial purpose without the House being aware of them.

"My sole question was not on whether the plan was good, not whether the process by which it got there was good, but whether it was compatible with our established rules on the interpretation of what's germane," Howell said.

House Clerk G. Paul Nardo pulled germaneness rulings that Howell had made since he became speaker in 2003, and Howell said he studied them in reaching his decision. "I've tried to be, pretty consistently, tight in my interpretations," he said.

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