The Washington Post
Virginia Assembly lacks consensus
During special session, lawmakers can’t agree on actions, or adjourning
richmond — Virginia’s General Assembly returned to the State Capitol briefly Wednesday for a special session that was more notable for absences than actions.
Absent was any consensus on a new judge for the State Corporation Commission (SCC) — the primary reason for the session — so lawmakers didn’t act. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was traveling to Maine to campaign for GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, so Democrats criticized his absence.
And while Democrats sounded the alarm that Republicans might use the session to seek a ban on some abortions — with abortion rights supporters holding a rally on Capitol Square — GOP leaders said they had never intended such an action during Wednesday’s session.
In the end, after about 3½ hours, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Democratic-controlled Senate couldn’t even agree on how to adjourn. House members adjourned sine die, meaning they consider the special session to be over. The Senate did not, meaning its members say the special session continues.
The distinction matters, because if the General Assembly is out of session then several powers fall to the governor — such as making judicial appointments and calling special elections to fill open seats in the legislature. That could allow Youngkin to, among other things, step in and name the new judge to the SCC, which oversees the state’s big electric utilities.
But House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-shenandoah) said in an interview that he was hoping the governor would not step in. “I would ask him not to,” Gilbert said. “I do think come January we’ll have another opportunity to” reach consensus in the legislature. He said the House gaveled out simply because its work was
complete, given that it could not agree with the Senate on the pick.
Adjournment also could allow Youngkin to order a prompt special election if state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-virginia Beach) wins her bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria (D) in November. Republicans warned that Democrats would aim to keep the seat open until after the General Assembly launches its next regular session in January, which would give Democrats the power to defeat a bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks that Youngkin plans to submit.
Democrats have a 21-19 edge in the upper chamber but will have trouble blocking the bill because one member of their caucus, Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-richmond), supports some restrictions on abortion, and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-sears (R) has the power to break tie votes. If Kiggans’s seat were vacant, Democrats would have a 21-18 majority — enough to thwart the bill even if Morrissey defects.
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-fairfax) denied that the Kiggans scenario was the reason Democrats in his chamber voted to keep the session going. Instead, he said, it was the prospect of Youngkin filling the SCC vacancy. “We didn’t get an agreement on the SCC. We don’t want him to do that,” he said.
Saslaw argued that as long as one chamber has not adjourned, the Assembly is still in session. If the governor tried to make any appointments under the current scenario, he said, “it’d be tested in court, and we would win.”
The situation has happened before, although it was Republicans arguing that one chamber cannot go it alone. In August 2015, amid a bitter standoff over a state Supreme Court appointment between Gov. Terry Mcauliffe (D) and the Republicans who at the time controlled the General Assembly, the House insisted that a special legislative session remained underway while Senate Democrats — joined by one Republican defector — said it was over.
Lawmakers did agree Wednesday on a handful of lower-court judgeships, but otherwise the special session was notable mainly as a chance for speeches on hot topics of the day. Democrats went after Youngkin for his ongoing travels to other states to campaign for Republicans in gubernatorial races, arguing that he is using Virginia as a steppingstone to run for president or vice president in 2024.
They took special exception to his plans Wednesday to travel to Maine and stump for Lepage, a former GOP governor who drew national headlines for racially inflammatory comments, most notably in 2016, when he called people of color “the enemy” and said drug traffickers passing through Maine often “impregnate a young White girl.”
“To be going to Maine, to stand with a person like that, today, while we’re here working is shameful,” House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-portsmouth) said in a floor speech.
Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-alexandria) expressed dismay that Youngkin was lending support to someone “who has a long history of using inflammatory, racist rhetoric.”
Youngkin, who made an appearance in Virginia Beach early Wednesday afternoon, planned to headline at an evening fundraiser for Lepage in Lewiston, Maine.
Republicans didn’t respond to the Democratic attacks on the floor, but afterward several defended Youngkin, who said last week that he was unaware of Lepage’s rhetoric but was focused on boosting fellow Republicans running for governor in competitive states.
“I don’t know what former governor Lepage said or when he said it,” said House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-scott). “If he’s apologized we should just move on.”
“I think they’re going to find something to criticize [ Youngkin] for no matter what’s happening,” Gilbert said. “That was the criticism of the day.”
Democrats also warned Republicans against attempting to impose further restrictions on abortions. Virginia law allows abortion in the first and second trimesters, until about 26 weeks, and in the third trimester only if the mother’s life or health is at serious risk, as certified by three doctors.
About 100 people gathered at the bell tower on Capitol Square in the morning to demonstrate for abortion rights, at times chanting, “We will not go back.” Many in the crowd carried signs, including one that read, “Forced pregnancy is a human rights violation,” and another that said, “I bow to no law made by men who never bore a child.”
“If we have to march, if we have to rally, if we have to drag folks out to the polls, we’re going to do it because rights can be taken away and the court has put this fight back in that building,” state Sen. Jennifer L. Mcclellan (D-richmond) told the crowd, referring to the State Capitol.
Del. Emily M. Brewer (RSuffolk), who is 31 weeks pregnant, made a floor speech defending Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban and accusing Democrats of being afraid to say how they actually feel about limits on abortions. “They want to talk to their base and they want to stir a pot,” she said. “You’re allowing abortion until the moment of birth until you speak up and say different.”
One area where Republicans and Democrats found agreement was in offering farewell wishes to Del. Mark L. Keam, a Fairfax Democrat who resigned his seat Tuesday to join the Biden administration as deputy assistant secretary for travel and tourism in the International Trade Administration.
Gilbert called a special election for Jan. 10 to fill the seat.
Keam, the first Korean American in Virginia’s General Assembly, has served in the House since 2010. The winner of the special election will serve the remainder of Keam’s term, which expires in January 2024.
Even Del. Nick Freitas (R-culpeper), one of the most fiery conservatives in the House, paid tribute to Keam’s ability to work across the aisle. “I liked Delegate Mark Keam,” Freitas said to loud cheers. “This is the only time I could’ve said that because he’s not seeking reelection. Because me saying nice things would have been devastating for him in his district.”