Thursday, January 24, 2013

Finding a way out of Va. redistricting trap

By , Thursday, January 24, 12:13 PM

RICHMOND — Sen. Richard L. Saslaw got wind Thursday that House Democrats might force a vote on a bill to redraw Senate lines across the state, so he dashed from his chamber to make sure that didn’t happen.

Republicans had rammed the measure through the Senate on Monday in a sneak attack Saslaw had compared to Pearl Harbor. And ever since, the Senate Democratic leader from Fairfax has been quietly pressing House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to do away with it, according to legislators and Capitol staffers.

Even though they were in close contact, Saslaw was not sure where Howell stood on the bill that he could kill with a procedural move. And with good reason.

Howell and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) are conflicted about how to get out of a mess their own party thrust them into, according to two Republicans familiar with their thinking but not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Republican redraw

A proposal to redraw Virginia state Senate districts would make eight districts, six of them held by Democrats, more heavily Republican, and leaves seven out of 40 not dominated by either party. More Democrats were added to three already heavily Democratic districts. Read related article.

Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services. Ted Mellnik and Laris Karklis/The Washington Post. Published on January 22, 2013, 8:51 p.m.

The governor and speaker are said to be struggling over whether to advance the plan or kill it. If they opt do it in, they are discussing whether Howell should do it by way of parliamentary ruling, or McDonnell should via veto.

“They just don’t know what they’re going to do yet,” said a Republican strategist familiar with their thinking. “They’re human beings, just handed this proposal.”

As the governor and speaker to decide a course, Saslaw has been appealing to Howell, his political opponent but friend. “Dick thinks may be this can be settled short of a confrontation,” said a Democratic senator who did not want to be identified in order to speak candidly.

McDonnell, Howell and Saslaw all declined to comment on their conversations.

The redistricting shocker that Senate Republicans sprang on unsuspecting Democrats Monday came as no less a surprise to McDonnell and Howell.

The plan has the potential to give Republicans greater sway over the now-evenly divided Senate — something the speaker and governor would normally welcome. But it also threatens to derail their proposed transportation-funding overhaul, which is central to McDonnell’s bid for the sort of grand legacy that sets governors on a path to the White House.

The House is considering legislation that Senate Republicans muscled through Monday. Taking up a bill that called for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, the amended it on the floor to impose sweeping changes on all of the Senate’s 40 districts.

Republicans said the new maps would correct gerrymandered districts Democrats pushed through in 2011 when they controlled the Senate. Democrats said the plan runs afoul of the state constitution, which specifies that redistricting take place after the decennial census in years ending in one.

The new map, which would take effect in 2015, creates an additional majority-black district in Southside but also makes at least eight other districts more heavily Republican.

If McDonnell and Howell kill the map, they could enrage fellow Republicans — a group already wary of their transportation plan, which eliminates the gas tax but raises the sales tax and certain fees.

If they let it go, the governor and speaker will infuriate Democrats, who also look skeptically on the transportation proposal because it reallocates money that could be spent on schools and other “core” government services to roads.

No matter which route they go, they must consider timing. Should they get it over with? Wait it out to see if public outcry dies down? Do it during session when the bill could be used as a bargaining chip on transportation? Or wait until afterward, when the governor would have more time to decide on a veto?

McDonnell, who has cultivated a national image as a results-oriented pragmatist, is said to be leery of being tied to a partisan power grab — particularly one that has also taken on a storyline tinged with race.

Republicans were able to push their plan through the 20-20 Senate by taking it up on Monday when a Democrat was absent.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, who decades ago argued school desegregation cases and served as Richmond’s first black mayor, was away attending the President Obama’s inauguration in Washington.

Democrats and even a late-night comedian have seized that angle.

“They waited until a Democratic senator and longtime civil rights leader left town on Martin Luther King Day to attend President Obama’s inauguration,” comedian Stephen Colbert said as he named the Senate Republicans his “alpha dogs of the week.” “In the words of Dr. King, ‘I have been to the mountaintop, and while I was there, they heavily redistricted the promised land.’ ”

Virginia Republicans were similarly lampooned on national TV during last year’s session for a bill that, as originally proposed, would have required women to get a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion. The uproar was widely seen at torpedoing McDonnell’s chances for being picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

On Thursday afternoon, when Saslaw dashed to the House, he learned that Democrats there had decided not to force a vote on the matter. For the second day in a row, the House voted to pass the bill by for the day without any objection.

As he headed back to the Senate, Saslaw waved off questions about the House’s decision to put off action.

“Bill Howell doesn’t need me to tell him how to do his own business,” Saslaw said.

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