Tensions over many Republicans’ unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the presidential election spilled onto the Virginia Capitol Wednesday, when House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn stripped three GOP lawmakers of key committee assignments due to their vocal support for overturning the election’s results.
On the first day of the legislative session, Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, was stripped from his seat on the elections panel, which he chaired for years when his party held the majority on the first day of the Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, was stripped of his seat on the transportation panel; and, Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, was stripped of his seat on the courts panel.
All three men have in recent weeks decried what they termed fraud in the November presidential election, during which voters denied President Donald Trump a second term in favor of President-elect Joe Biden. The three delegates signed onto a letter to Vice President Mike Pence seeking the nullification of Virginia’s electoral college votes, after the state swung decidedly for Biden, 54% to 44%.
“By seeking to disenfranchise millions of Virginians and undercut faith in our democratic institutions, [the three lawmakers] showed exceedingly poor judgement and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of their office,” said Kunal Atit, a spokesman for Filler-Corn.
Also Wednesday, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle tussled over the length of the legislature’s gathering, which is sure to flow directly into a special session early next month under order by Gov. Ralph Northam.
On a party-line vote , House Republicans blocked a procedural resolution to conduct a 46-day assembly session, which will be the first time in almost 50 years that the Virginia legislature has refused to extend its legislative session in odd-numbered years beyond 30 days.
But House Democrats countered with a second resolution, which passed with only one no vote, that establishes the operating rules for a 30-day session with the clear expectation that all unfinished business, including work on the two-year budget, will carry over into a special session.
“This is a game,” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, said in denouncing the Republican decision to block extension of the legislative session beyond 30 days.
The Senate approved the resolution by a 30-9 vote, after Republicans blocked a substitute proposal by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, that would have extended the legislative session to 46 days and avoid the need for a special session. The 22-17 vote lacked the two-thirds vote required for passage.
The joint procedural resolution is normally a mundane and routine exercise, but it is crucial to setting the scope and rules for the House of Delegates and Senate to follow in passing legislation, including the state budget. Legislators learned that lesson after the chambers failed to agree on procedures for the special session than began on Aug. 18 and lasted 84 days.
The resolution also became a flash point in an election-year confrontation between Democrats who took control of both chambers a year ago and Republicans who want to regain their power in elections for all House seats in November.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, urged his caucus to oppose the extension, casting doubt on whether the extended time would be used to address the pandemic not Democrats’ progressive agenda. Gilbert called back to the lengthy special session lawmakers participated in last fall.
“It was ostensibly to tweak the budget to address the pandemic but I think we spent much of that time focusing on what our colleagues call criminal justice reform and police reform, almost exclusively focused on those areas,” Gilbert said.
Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, insisted that the pressing needs of the pandemic demanded more time in session.
“Families need a hand up, but our Republican colleagues want to work less. Small businesses are hurting, but our Republican colleagues want to work less.”
Democrats are counting on Northam, entering the final year of his term, to call a special session immediately after the assembly adjourns on Feb. 11, as he made clear in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he will do.
The House adopted the second resolution by a 99-1 vote, with only LaRock voting no. The adopted schedule assumes that a special session immediately will follow the regular assembly session. It sets crossover day, the traditional procedural midpoint of the session, on Feb. 6, just five days before the assembly would adjourn. It also requires the assembly budget committees to complete work on their versions of the budget by Feb. 7.
Under the customary schedule for a 46-day session, the assembly would adjourn on Feb. 27.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said the resolution relies on a precedent set by House Republicans in 2012 that allowed the legislature to carry unfinished business, such as the budget, into special session.
Former Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who was then majority leader, said earlier this week, “The step we took in 2012 was under unique circumstances and hasn’t been repeated since, so you could argue whether it’s a reliable precedent or more of an exception to the rule.”
“But it’s certainly the prerogative of the majority to run the body as they see fit, and if they attempt to violate the rules or the Constitution, we’ll call them on it,” said Cox, now a Republican candidate for governor.
Some senators from both parties favored Surovell’s substitute plan, which would have avoided the need for a transition to a special session that would have lengthened legislators time away from their private businesses.
“We are probably better off than if we adopt the House resolution and are at the mercy of the governor and a special session,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George.
However, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and other Republican leaders argued that the assembly would not need more than 30 days to complete its business, including the budget, if it worked through each weekend instead of going home.
“It’s a question of whether or not we want to enhance our work ethic,” Norment said.
The assembly convened under solemn circumstances, with moving tributes to Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who died of COVID-19 on New Year’s Day, and threats of possible unrest directed at the Virginia Capitol in the days leading to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20.
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, paid tribute to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, a Virginia resident who was killed in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
“Officer Brian Sicknick believed in the honor of all who served in the Capitol. He lost his life trying to hold them up,” Watts said.
The pandemic also shaped the battle over procedure, especially in the House, where Republicans chafed at the decision to meet entirely online. “Our only concern is whether we can conduct the people’s business in this fashion,” Gilbert said.
The procedural resolution initially would have required every legislator and other person to be tested for the virus weekly and have their temperatures checked daily before entering their chamber, in the case of the Senate. Legislators and other people with credentials to enter the chamber also would have to remain masked except when speaking or eating.
The Senate amended the resolution to remove the requirement for weekly testing because Senate Rules Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said legislators have been told they will be vaccinated against COVID-19. The House agreed to the change.