By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND, Va. — In what Republicans called “a Virginia version of Harry Reid’s nuclear option,” Democrats invoked new rules giving them control of all state Senate committees.
With Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam casting the tie-breaker Tuesday, the evenly split Senate was reorganized on a 21-20 vote.
Republicans branded it “a day of outrageous power grabs.” They maintained that the existing Senate rules and organization governed for a four-year term, coinciding with the Senate election cycle.
“It is a partisan game to advance a radical agenda without accountability to Virginia voters,” said state Sen. Tom Garrett.
“The new Senate rules subvert the Virginia Constitution by creating a veto and vesting it in the chairman of the Rules Committee,” he told Watchdog.org.
“It is no overstatement to say that (the Democrats’) creation of a super senator in the form of the Rules chairman makes John Edwards (D-Roanoke) far more powerful than even the lieutenant governor.”
Garrett, a former commonwealth attorney from Louisa County, said Edwards “can singlehandedly pull any Senate bill from the purview of the full body and kill it in a party-line vote without having the accountability and transparency of a floor vote on the record.”
Democrats say they’re merely doing what Republicans have done when they held a majority.
But Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves says there is a big difference.
The Fredericksburg lawmaker said the Senate has a “long-standing tradition of reorganizing every four years,” when all 40 seats are up for election. The next quadrennial Senate elections will be in 2015.
Several Republicans were booted off committees Tuesday to create Democratic majorities.
Garrett, for example, was removed from the Education and Health Committee and the Courts of Justice Committee — “where I was most troublesome,” he said.
The Courts of Justice panel had been assigned to hear Garrett’s ethics bill.
Geoff Skelley, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agreed that the Democrats’ actions Tuesday were historic in at least one respect.
“This has never happened before, where the lieutenant governor’s identity … switched while the chamber was in deadlock,” he said.
Garren Shipley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, said the Democrats set a precedent with their off-year reorganization.
“Now, any time a Senate seat changes, all the rules go down the drain. It becomes the rule of 21.”
In a joint statement, Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment Jr., Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle and Caucus Whip William Stanley Jr. said, “The Senate of Virginia is no longer a deliberative body and, with today’s actions, barely a legislative one.”
New Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said in a statement:
“The voters have made it clear. They have had three consecutive elections in which they could have given Republicans indisputable control of this chamber, but every time they chose to elect a Democrat.
“We now have the majority, and we have a responsibility to use that majority to get to work on the issues that voters care about.”
This story was updated at 9:35 a.m.
Katie Watson contributed to this story.
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of the Virginia Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward