RICHMOND — Sen. Richard L. Saslaw got wind Thursday that House Democrats might force a vote on a bill to redraw Senate lines across the state, so he dashed from his chamber to make sure that didn’t happen.
Republicans had rammed the measure through the Senate on Monday in a sneak attack that Saslaw had compared to Pearl Harbor. And ever since, the Senate Democratic leader from Fairfax has been quietly pressing House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to do away with it, according to legislators and Capitol staffers.
Even though they were in close contact, Saslaw was not sure where Howell stood on the bill, which the speaker could kill with a procedural move. And with good reason.
Howell and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) are conflicted about how to get out of a mess that members of their party had thrust them into, according to two Republicans and a Democratic senator familiar with their thinking but not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
The governor and speaker are said to be struggling over whether to advance the plan or kill it. If they opt to do it in, the question becomes whether Howell should dispatch it by way of a parliamentary ruling or McDonnell by way of a veto.
“They just don’t know what they’re going to do yet,” said a GOP strategist familiar with their thinking. “They’re human beings, just handed this proposal.”
As the governor and speaker try to decide on a course, Saslaw has been appealing to Howell, his political opponent but friend.
“Dick thinks maybe this can be settled short of a confrontation,” said a Democratic senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly.
McDonnell, Howell and Saslaw all declined to comment on their conversations.
The redistricting shocker that Senate Republicans sprang on unsuspecting Democrats came as no less a surprise to McDonnell and Howell.
The plan has the potential to give Republicans greater sway over the now evenly divided Senate — something the speaker and governor would normally welcome. But it also threatens to derail a proposed transportation-funding overhaul, which is central to McDonnell’s bid for the sort of grand legacy that can set a governor on a path to the White House.
The House is considering legislation that Senate Republicans muscled through Monday. Taking up a bill that called for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, they amended it on the floor to make changes to all of the Senate’s 40 districts.
Republicans said the new maps would correct gerrymandered districts that Democrats pushed through in 2011 when they controlled the Senate. Democrats said the plan runs afoul of the state constitution, which specifies that redistricting take place after the decennial census in years ending in one.
The new map, which would take effect in 2015, creates an additional majority-black district in Southside but also disperses the black vote elsewhere, making other districts more heavily Republican.
If McDonnell and Howell kill the map, they could enrage fellow Republicans — a group already wary of their transportation plan, which would eliminate the gas tax but raise the sales tax and certain fees.
If they let it go, the governor and speaker will infuriate Democrats, who also look skeptically on the transportation proposal because it reallocates money that could be spent on schools and other “core” government services to roads.
No matter which route they go, they must consider timing. Should they get it over with? Wait to see if public outcry dies down? Do it during the session, when the bill could be used as a bargaining chip on transportation? Or wait until afterward, when the governor would have more time to decide on a veto?
McDonnell, who has cultivated a national image as a results-
oriented pragmatist, is said to be leery of being tied to a partisan power grab, particularly one that has taken on a story line tinged with race.
Republicans were able to push their plan through the 20-20 Senate by taking it up on Monday when a Democrat was absent.
Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, who decades ago argued school desegregation cases and who was Richmond’s first black mayor, was attending President Obama’s inauguration in Washington.
Democrats and even a late-night comedian have seized that angle.
“They waited until a Democratic senator and longtime civil rights leader left town on Martin Luther King Day to attend President Obama’s inauguration,” comedian Stephen Colbert said as he named the Senate Republicans his “alpha dogs of the week.” “In the words of Dr. King, ‘I have been to the mountaintop, and while I was there, they heavily redistricted the promised land.’ ”
Virginia Republicans were similarly lampooned on national TV during last year’s session for a bill that, as originally proposed, would have required women to get a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion. The uproar was widely seen as torpedoing McDonnell’s chances of being picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
On Thursday afternoon, when Saslaw dashed to the House, he learned that Democrats there had decided not to force a vote on the matter — a vote that would have brought to a head the question of whether the Senate amendment violated legislative rules.
For the second day in a row, the House voted to pass over the bill for the day without any objection.
As he headed back to the Senate, Saslaw waved off questions about the House’s decision to put off action. “Bill Howell doesn’t need me to tell him how to do his own business,” Saslaw said.