RICHMOND, Va. -- Republican House Speaker Bill Howell on Wednesday blocked a controversial GOP redistricting scheme despite significant pressure from within his own party to keep it alive.
Howell said Senate Republicans acted out of line last month when they amended a relatively benign House bill by completely redrawing the Senate maps to give them an edge in the 2015 elections. Those changes "strayed dramatically, in my opinion, from the legislation's initial purpose," Howell said, and he flexed his power as speaker to rule them not germane to the intent of the bill.
Senate Republicans were incensed and vowed to find other means to pass their map.
"The entire Senate Republican Caucus is deeply disappointed by Speaker Howell's unilateral ruling today," said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.
The plan offered by Senate Republicans would have created a sixth minority-majority district, but the boundaries were drawn in such a way that Republicans were favorites to pick up as many as eight seats in 2015.
The decision weighed heavily on Howell for two weeks. While he held out hope that Senate Republicans and Democrats could solve the matter on their own, he admitted later that he believed from the onset that the GOP maneuver was an overreach. He said he avoided an hourlong caucus meeting before the vote so his fellow Republicans could vent on the inevitable decision.
"They felt it would be better if I wasn't there," an exhausted Howell said in the chamber after the ruling.
House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, called the speaker's act "very courageous" because of the pressure he faced from all corners of the Capitol. Democrats warned of a showdown over transportation plans and the budget if Howell allowed the plan to move forward, while Senate Republicans, fearful of losing their majority status in the next elections, insisted it should pass the House.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, too, made it known he was unhappy with the power play by the Senate GOP, who passed the plan on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by one vote while state Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, was attending President Obama's inauguration. The Republican governor also publicly worried the move would distract lawmakers as he sought a grand compromise for his legacy-defining transportation package.
"With his ruling, concerns surrounding the process of this bill's passage in the Senate are over," McDonnell said after Howell's announcement. "Now it is time for all legislators to focus on the pressing issues facing the General Assembly."
Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, indicated that negotiations over transportation between the GOP and Democrats will be much smoother now.
"We'll get things worked out," Saslaw said.