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Democrats Shut Out of Power in Senate

Even if Democrats win in two special elections, control over committees is unlikely.

Don't expect Democrats to take control over state Senate committees anytime soon, even if the party manages to hold both of the seats where special elections are now underway. That's because Republicans included a provision in the Senate rules back in 2012 that would require a two-thirds majority to change the leadership structure. The rules apply for the entire four-year term of the Senate, and a two-thirds majority would be needed to change them. That means that even if Democrats manage to hold their 20-to-20 tie and have help from a Democratic lieutenant governor, Republicans will retain chairmanship over the committees.

"The bottom line here is that the Democrats are going to be playing defense regardless of the outcome of the special elections," said Stephen Farnsworth, professor at the University of Mary Washington. "Democrats would be able to block anything that committees organized and led by Republicans might bring to the floor, but they will have less control over setting the agenda than a majority usually would."

The two-third requirement to change Senate rules is nothing new. It dates back to 1996, the last time the chamber was evenly divided between 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Back then, the parties created a power-sharing agreement that divided control of the Senate committees. That agreement was largely an effort to keep conservative Democrat Virgil Goode in the party, although he eventually became a Republican anyway. What is unprecedented is Republicans using Senate rules to keep themselves in power despite the outcome of subsequent elections.

"At this moment, there's nobody in either party who wants to figure out a way to share power," said Geoff Skelley, analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "So we are seeing something very different than what happened in the 1990s."

THE 2011 ELECTION created a tenuous balance in the Virginia state Senate, an evenly divided chamber between 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Because Republicans held the lieutenant governor position at the time, Bill Bolling was able to break ties on a number of high-profile votes on abortion and voter identification. But now that Democratic state Sen. Ralph Northam has been elected to the position, Democrats were hopeful they could potentially use the tie-breaking vote to maximum effect.

"Having a tie-breaking vote in a Senate that's divided 20 to 20 would give us a tremendous improvement in controlling the pace and outcome of legislation," said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30).

Democrats might find themselves working around the system, though. Without the ability to put their members at the head of committees, party leaders would be limited to using their newfound status on floor votes — and that's only if they are able to maintain the evenly divided status. To do that, they would need to win the special election to replace lieutenant governor-elect Ralph Northam's seat in Norfolk as well as another special election to replace attorney general-elect Mark Herring in Loudoun — pending the result of a recount.

"Both seats are more Democratic than not," said Skelley, noting that Obama won both Senate districts in 2012. "But even though the Democrats might have an advantage, at the end of the day it's a special election and it's not like either seat is overwhelmingly Democratic."

BOTH SEATS were previously held by a Republican, and voters in both Senate districts voted for Republican Bob McDonnell in the last gubernatorial election. Democrats say that was before the Senate districts were redrawn after the 2010 Census — a process that was overseen by Democrats in the Senate. Nevertheless, special elections are hard to predict, which means that the discussion about how Northam might use his tie-breaking vote could be moot. Even if Democrats are successful in maintaining both seats, their power would be limited because Republicans would remain in control over most of the committees.

"Democrats are going to have to amend legislation on the floor to get what they want," said Farnsworth. "That's likely to be frustrating."

One quirky tradition of the sate Senate is that the party out of power gets a majority of members in the Local Government Committee, viewed as a backwater to many in leadership positions. So Democrats are expected to maintain a majority vote on that committee. The current leadership structure is unlikely to change without a two-thirds vote of the Senate chamber. And nobody expects the Republicans to willingly give up power, setting the stage for the next state Senate election in 2015.

"It seems like the Republicans have found a way to avoid handing over power even if they lost the lieutenant governor's race," said Skelley. "So we're likely to see that tension play a role in the upcoming session."