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Va Dems mull suit to push GOP Senate power sharing

Bob Lewis

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.

Republicans appealed then for fairness and prepared to challenge the Democrats' power grab in court. It never happened because Virgil Goode, then a conservative Democratic state senator, threatened to side with Senate Republicans unless Democrats agreed to share power by equally apportioning the partisan ratio of Senate committees, which serve as legislative gatekeepers. Their hand forced, Democrats agreed to power-sharing.

Goode later left the Democratic Party, won election to Congress as an independent endorsed by the GOP, then became a Republican before losing his 2008 re-election bid.

"I would hope that my Republican colleagues would remember the words they uttered in 1995 and 1996 and remember that if it was fair then, it's fair now," McEachin said.

This time, there are no Republican senators urging their party to share power. Instead, they're unified in asserting the strategic advantage Bolling gives them to consolidate control over Virginia policymaking. Republicans will hold 68 of the House of Delegates' 100 seats in the new General Assembly, and Republican Bob McDonnell has two more years left on the single, nonrenewable four-year term Virginia uniquely allows its governors.

McDonnell, in a separate conference call with Virginia journalists from a trade mission to India, affirmed the Republicans' intent to seize power in the Senate.

"It is 20-20 but on organizational matters on the Virginia Senate, the lieutenant governor breaks the tie vote and Bill Bolling has stated his intention is to vote with Republicans and organize accordingly," McDonnell said, calling the issue "an internal organizing matter for the Senate."

The Democrats declined to discuss specifics of when or where they plan to sue, nor would they say whether they've retained an attorney.

The Associated Press