RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — House Speaker Bill Howell is the last guy to go looking for a fight.
But when the state Senate's 20 Republicans used ambush tactics to muscle a wholesale rewrite of Virginia's 40 Senate districts past the Senate's 20 Democrats on a day when a black Democratic senator was attending President Barack Obama's inauguration, it started a fight that came looking for Howell.
In one of the more difficult and consequential rulings in his 10 years as speaker, Howell on Wednesday sidetracked the power play by fellow Republicans in the Senate, ruling their amendment not germane, or relevant, to the limited intent of the original bill.
In an exclusive Associated Press interview minutes after the ruling, Howell said he knew the dispute might turn the 2013 General Assembly into a train wreck, but said he based his ruling on history and House rules.
"There were a lot of people who wanted me to rule that the amendments were germane," Howell said of pressure from some in his own party. "As I said on the floor, germaneness can be a pretty broad thing. What's important is you pick a position and are consistent to it. The next speaker may be much broader on his germaneness interpretations than I, but I think it's held us in good stead over the years where a lot of bills have had amendments put on."
Germaneness is an issue that the rules of the 394-year-old House of Delegates leave to the speaker's sole discretion. It is intended as a safeguard against Trojan horse legislation that could quietly hijack a bill far from its original purpose and surreptitiously win passage.
"The purpose of the germaneness issue is so that the House won't get caught unaware with a new subject popping up that they (delegates) haven't had time to study," said Howell, who represents parts of Stafford County and Fredericksburg city. "That's why it needs to be to the same subject."
Nothing prevents speakers from making rulings that would benefit one party or person and punish another except for conscience, the record a speaker would leave, the integrity of the institution's rules and an assurance of fair play.
"The first thing you do is study the rules of the House," he said, noting that he had House Clerk G. Paul Nardo pull germaneness rulings he has made in his 11 sessions presiding over the House, particularly rulings that dealt with redistricting.
"I have tried to be pretty consistently tight in my interpretations. So once you make that decision, then your conscience part is pretty easy," Howell said. "My sole question was not on whether the plan was good, not on whether the process that got it there was good, but whether it was compatible with our established rules and interpretations of what's germane."
Howell knew that either way he ruled, he would win the praise of 20 senators and the enmity of another 20.
"I was hoping the Senate Republicans and the Senate Democrats — not knowing how I was going to rule — might say, 'Let's see if we can come up with a compromise that's acceptable to the both of us that avoids this roll-of-the-dice kind of thing.'"
"I don't think they were able to come to any sort of agreement," he said.