Virginia Senate Democrats on Tuesday called for a special session to take up President Obama's health care reforms and comply with a critical new provision in the law before a December deadline.

Democrats accused Gov. Bob McDonnell of stalling and flip-flopping on plans to put in place a state-run health insurance exchange that would create a marketplace for uninsured residents to buy coverage. McDonnell recently indicated he probably would let the federal government operate an exchange for Virginia.

"I can't understand how the self-proclaimed party of limited government would allow the federal government to impose a generic exchange on Virginians," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin called the Democrats' comments "theatrics."

"There is absolutely no need for a special session," Martin said. "We are just weeks away from the start of the regular General Assembly session, during which the issue of health care exchanges will be addressed."

The General Assembly is scheduled to convene Jan. 9.

McDonnell initially preferred for Virginia to operate its own exchange, but waited to act in hopes the U.S. Supreme Court would rule the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. McDonnell then said he would hold off until after the November election to see if a Republican was elected president.

At McDonnell's request, Obama extended a deadline last weekend and gave governors until Dec. 14 to make a decision on a state exchange versus a federal one.

Obama's administration on Tuesday defined essential benefits that must be covered by all insurers that sell coverage in state-run markets, guidelines McDonnell has asked for repeatedly. Insurance companies cannot deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition, or charge higher premiums because of health problems, occupation or gender; states have discretion to make decisions beyond that.

Exchanges must be up and running before the bulk of the law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

"I'm confident states will have what they need to move forward in creating these critical new health exchange markets," Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told reporters during a conference call.

Senate Republicans are likely to defer to McDonnell's wishes but there's widespread agreement in that caucus that any plan to create a state exchange would have difficulty passing the much more conservative House of Delegates. Many Republican delegates want nothing to do with federal health care reform and the price tag that is likely to come with it.

Democrats said that was foolish.

"Virginians have different needs than Texans or Minnesotans," said Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico. "And they deserve an exchange that suits those specific needs."