Monday, January 9, 2012

Is there a Senate deal that would help both sides?

With the opening of the Virginia General Assembly upon us in two days and with chaos threatening to reign in the Senate, is there a quasi-power sharing agreement that would satisfy by both sides and avoid a lot of aggravation?

There very well might be.

Democrats are claiming that Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling can't vote on organizing the Senate. Republicans claim that vote gives them the majority. Ironically, the two parties are taking the opposite positions that they took the last time the Senate was deadlocked 20-20, in 1996. At that time the lieutenant governor was a Democrat, Don Beyer.

A judge refused to grant an injunction against Bolling casting the tie-breaking vote because the issue was not "ripe," since he hadn't yet done so. The lawsuit filed by Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. Donald McEachin is still in front of the court. If, really when, Bolling casts his tie-breaking vote, the Democrats could go back to court. Of course, that would require them to walk off the floor, denying a quorum in the Senate until the issue could be resolved. And that's complicated by the fact that Bolling, like the governor or a member of the legislature can't be compelled to answer to a civil suit during the General Assembly session.

So chaos could ensue.

But it's not necessary. Because there could be a deal that gives both sides part of what they want.

Bolling put out a well-reasoned memo dealing with what issues he believes he can cast a tie-breaking vote on and which he cannot. He believes that he can vote on organization, but not on issuing debt, constitutional amendments or final passage of the state budget. I think his analysis is right.

Which could cause problems for Republicans, as well as Democrats. They now need consensus with Democrats on the budget and they are unlikely to get it if Democrats feel that Republicans are trying to grab power they didn't win at the polls.

But there would seem to be a deal out there.

In recognition of their victory at the polls and Bolling's tie-breaking vote, Republicans would be recognized as the majority and control the floor. Sen. Tommy Norment would be the Majority Leader and Republicans would chair every committee.

But, reflecting what each side earned in November, instead of the 10-6 majorities Norment has talked about on committees, each side would have an equal number of seats on committees. This would allow Democrats to kill some bad social issues bills coming over from the House in committee, which probably wouldn't really make Norment, Bolling or Gov. Bob McDonnell -- who could avoid having to sign nutty social issues legislation while auditioning for the vice presidential nomination -- unhappy either.

Democrats would probably also want a pledge that Norment will not, as he's threatened, "revisit" last year's legislative redistricting. From a good public policy perspective, that's a good thing. Redistricting shouldn't be on the line in every election, to be engaged in whenever the majority changes.

In return, Democrats could probably agree to pass the incumbent protection Congressional redistricting plan that all the incumbent representatives signed off on last year. True some think that would lock in the current 8-3 Republican edge. I don't, because that edge isn't natural anyway. Virginia's not a 75% Republican state so there's no way the GOP will hold that kind of advantage long term. In the incumbent protection plan the 2nd District and, to a lesser extent, the 5th would remain "swingy." The 10th would also probably become a swing district once Rep. Frank Wolf retires. The Democrats could probably get a better deal out of the federal courts. They might still have that opportunity. Just because the "incumbent protection" plan passes the legislature doesn't mean it will clear the Obama Justice Department, which could very well prefer the Democratic plan which offered the possibility of electing another African-American to the U.S. House.
This is a deal that could satisfy both sides. Nobody gets everything they want. Nobody gives up everything. That's sort of the point of a "power sharing" agreement. And it's the best both sides can probably get and still get on with the people's business. Democrats will have to recognize that they have lost the majority. And Republicans will have to recognize that 20 seats in a 40-member body don't justify 63% of the committee seats.

Both sides will have to recognize that they will have to compromise and cooperate to handle the range of complex issues, from the budget to uranium mining to highway funding to support for public and higher education that constitute the real work of the 2012 legislative session.

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