Virginia House Republicans are poised to vote this week on a surprise Senate redistricting proposal that could give the GOP control of the state Senate for years to come, but also cost Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell his legacy.
House leaders repeatedly put off action last week on a plan that would redraw Senate boundaries to give Republicans an advantage in the 2015 statehouse elections. The Senate passed the plan by one vote on Jan. 21, when Republicans put it up for a quick vote in the evenly divided chamber while one Democrat, Sen. Henry Marsh of Richmond, was attending President Obama's inauguration in Washington.
The maneuver garnered attention from late-night comedians, who mocked Republicans for making such a power grab while Marsh, a civil rights icon in Virginia, was attending the inauguration of the nation's first black president on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But furious Democrats said that if the redistricting plan is approved, they would derail McDonnell's transportation funding initiative, which the Republican governor hoped would cement his legacy in his final year in office.
It's the second time in as many years that McDonnell's fellow Republicans have put him in the difficult position of balancing his pragmatic legislative agenda with the ideological principles of conservatives in his party. Last year, Republican lawmakers pushed through a slew of social bills that loosened gun laws, restricted abortion and curbed gay rights despite McDonnell's warning not to overreach.
"He's trying to make the GOP in Virginia a guidepost for national Republicans, and Republicans in the General Assembly are having none of it," said Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech. "Every time he's tried to do something, he's been thwarted by his own party."
The stakes are much higher in 2013, McDonnell's final year in office. He has outlined an aggressive transportation reform package centered around raising the sales tax and abolishing the gas tax. The House will take up his proposal this week.
But Democrats, who share control of the Senate, won't play ball if the redistricting proposal is still on the table. While McDonnell has criticized the manner in which the redistricting bill was passed, he has not yet said if he will veto it. House Republicans delayed action until Tuesday at the earliest.
Republican leaders insist the measure merely corrects the flawed map that Democrats passed in 2011, and said they have worked to keep the controversial social battles of 2012 at bay this session.
"Name one bill that's come out of committee that's a social bill," said House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford. "You can't."
But Democrats said the bad blood remains, and in a short, 45-day session, it's unclear whether McDonnell's term-defining transportation plan will advance.
"Not only are we behind the eight ball in terms of timing, now we're behind the eight ball in terms of trust," said Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale. "It's very hard to work in that climate."