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Speaker rules against Senate GOP redistricting plan

The surprise Senate redistricting plan that revived partisan divisions in the legislature is dead, at least for now, after House Speaker Bill Howell ruled the plan out of order on Wednesday.

Howell, R-Stafford, ruled that the plan, attached as an amendment to a House bill, was not germane to the bill. That essentially kills the plan.

Germaneness is a parliamentary term, referring to whether amendments to a bill are in keeping with the purpose, scope and intent of the original bill.

Howell said he has tried to be consistently strict with germaneness rulings as speaker.

The Senate amendment, made to a House bill to make technical adjustments to various district lines, “has been modified to stray dramatically, in my opinion, from the legislation’s original purpose of addressing relatively technical, minor administrative adjustments to certain districts,” Howell said. “This vast rewrite of Senate districts goes well beyond the usual legislative electoral precinct tweaks that are customary in each redistricting cycle.”

Howell’s ruling came more than two weeks after the Senate Republicans took Capitol Square by surprise, waiting until one Senate Democrat was absent in the evenly-split chamber to introduce and pass an amendment that would redraw all 40 Senate districts, creating a new majority-black district in Southside Virginia.

Democrats were furious and said it was unconstitutional to try to redraw districts outside of the every-ten-years norm.

They rejoiced in Howell’s ruling Wednesday.

“I appreciate the Speaker ruling in the spirit of the honor, integrity, and history of the General Assembly,” said Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico, in a statement. “He rose above petty partisanship to act in the best interest of the Commonwealth.”

Senate Republicans were less happy. In a statement, Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, said Republicans had consulted lawyers about whether their amendment was germane, and believe that it was.

Nevertheless, Norment said, “making this decision is solely the Speaker’s prerogative.  And although we may consider this decision to be in error, we have no choice but to respect his authority to make it.”

Norment, however, added that Senate Republicans will continue to try to adjust the districts as drawn by Democrats in 2011, because he thinks the Republican plan is more fair to communities of interest.

“We are confident that the districts approved by the Senate on January 21 will be the districts under which the 2015 elections will be conducted,” Norment said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said Howell ruled fairly and it’s time to move on.

“With his ruling, concerns surrounding the process of this 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,” McDonnell said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to get critically important transportation and education legislation and budget amendments passed in the short weeks ahead.”

Howell said he knew early — “I guess after I saw the amendment for the first time” — how he would rule.

It was clearly not germane, Howell said, and he felt his obligation was to address that issue, without delving into the political ramifications.

He told House Republicans how he felt. But he let two weeks go for other lawmakers to discuss it, hoping in particular that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate would reach a solution to the issue by themselves. That didn’t happen.

House Republicans met to talk about the issue, often without Howell present. Some of the members, Howell said, clearly wanted him to rule the amendment germane, for political reasons. Others told him they supported him, however he ruled on the issue. Howell said he doesn’t know how many House Republicans disagreed with his ruling, but he doesn’t get the sense that the issue will threaten his job as Speaker, to which he is elected by House members.

While Republicans talked, Howell asked the House Clerk’s staff to pull up his past germaneness rulings for study, and consulted Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, who said he has become the House Republicans’ “de facto parliamentarian.”

Orrock, a public school teacher, teaches basic parliamentary procedure to his classes, he said.

Orrock’s reading of the Senate amendment, set against Jefferson’s Manual, was that it wasn’t germane.

“The original purpose (of the bill) was not a wholesale redistricting plan,” Orrock said. “This amendment is much broader than the original purpose.”

Orrock was the one who on the House floor Wednesday officially asked Howell to rule on whether the Senate amendments were germane.

Howell said he “chatted a couple of times” with McDonnell, who publicly had said he was surprised by the Senate’s redistricting effort. McDonnell had told reporters he deplored the process Senate Republicans had used to pass the bill, but didn’t go so far as to promise a veto of it.

“He said Bill, whatever you decide, I’ll back you,” Howell said.

He also talked to Senate Minority Leader Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who describes Howell as a good friend.

Howell gave him little hint of what he’d do, Saslaw said.

“I knew from day one, he was going to do whatever he thought was right,” Saslaw told reporters.

He told Howell, “no matter what you rule, it will not affect our friendship one bit.”

Howell said Wednesday that that he has been in “a very serious, very uncomfortable position” for the past two weeks.

“It wasn’t something I relished,” Howell said. “It’s my job. I’m the only one who can make that decision. I talked to a lot of people about it, prayed about it, feel at peace about what I did. I think I did what was right.”

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