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Sen Dems want more power; Republicans say they’re holding budget hostage

Senate Democrats, who lost a battle for control of the Senate after last November’s elections split the Senate 20-20, are still seeking more equality on Senate committees.

But there’s disagreement on whether they’re holding the Senate budget hostage to get it. Democrats say the two issues aren’t linked; Republicans think they are.

In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tommy Norment on Friday, Sen. Dick Saslaw and Sen. Don McEachin proposed co-chairmanships of the Senate Finance committee, which writes the budget, and equal numbers on the Education and Health committee, which deals with many controversial social-issue bills. Democrats also want more Democratic senators on a handful of key committees: Commerce and Labor, Courts of Justice, Finance and Privileges and Elections. The Democratic proposal on those committees would give Republicans a one-vote edge, instead of the several-vote majority they currently have.  They’d also add a Republican to the Local Government committee, which is the only one with a Democratic majority.

The letter said Democrats propose that committee makeup last for the rest of the current term — four years — and that if a Democratic lieutenant governor is elected next year, Democrats would agree to keep the partisan makeup of committees, except they would appoint committee chairs.

The letter was sent on Friday. On Sunday, all six Democrats on the Senate Finance committee voted against the budget plan that committee produced, and all 20 Senate Democrats are expected to vote against it again on the Senate floor later this week. November’s elections gave both parties 20 seats in the state Senate. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has the power to vote to break ties on many bills — which is why Republicans claimed control of the Senate and run all but one committee. But Bolling can’t vote on the budget. A 20-20 tie means the budget bill would fail.

After Sunday’s vote, Saslaw was cagey with reporters, saying only that there were some things to be worked out and if they weren’t worked out, there likely wouldn’t be a Senate budget. He didn’t say what those things were.

While the Friday letter didn’t refer to the budget battle, a response from Norment today interprets it that way.

Norment sent McEachin and Saslaw a blistering response, accusing them of holding the budget hostage to partisan concerns.

“It was disheartening to read your letter and see there were absolutely no policy concerns expressed, only raw partisan, political objectives having absolutely nothing to do with the budget.  Intellectually, and as a good steward of the Commonwealth, I cannot link the budget to partisan, political pressures,” Norment wrote. “The passage of a Senate budget should be inoculated from your wholly unrelated suggestion to reorganize committees.  I can only view a negative vote against the Senate budget as deliberate obstructionist behavior, inflicting enormous financial uncertainty and anxiety on the very Virginians you and your Democratic colleagues purportedly want to help in this biennium budget.  To hold Virginians hostage over bruised political egos is disingenuous and an unflattering reflection of our legislative process.”

McEachin said today that Norment is wrongly linking the letter about committee structure to concerns Democrats have about the budget.

“Tommy is being a little bit disingenuous when he links the letter to the budget,” McEachin said.

He said the two sides have been having conversations about committee structure all session long, and the letter was related to that. McEachin said — as he did last week — that Democrats’ objections to the Senate budget are about substantive policy matters, not partisan concerns.

“The differences that we have on the budget are about policy,” McEachin said.

He said funding for health care “safety net” programs — like free clinics — are not fully restored in the Senate budget, as Democrats would like, nor is there enough funding for public schools.

The Senate is likely to take its budget vote on Thursday.