Virginia General Assembly to get underway in Richmond at noon in shadow of security concerns

Laveta Brigham

State officials said late Tuesday that they were closing Capitol Square and canceling any events that had been scheduled there next week, as well as closing some streets around the Capitol over the next few days for security purposes. The state Capitol building was already locked down because of the […]

State officials said late Tuesday that they were closing Capitol Square and canceling any events that had been scheduled there next week, as well as closing some streets around the Capitol over the next few days for security purposes.

The state Capitol building was already locked down because of the pandemic, with the House convening via online videoconference and the Senate meeting across town at the Science Museum of Virginia.

The museum offered a cavernous room for senators to maintain social distance. An empty desk would serve as a somber reminder of the dangers of the coronavirus, marking the loss of Sen. A. Benton Chafin Jr. (R-Russell), 60, who died last month after being hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Demonstrators planned to make their presence felt on Broad Street near the museum, with a coalition of liberal groups calling for a rally to draw attention to health care, housing and other issues related to the economy and the pandemic.

Democrats, who control both chambers, planned to gavel in at noon and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is slated to present his annual State of the Commonwealth address via video at 7 p.m.

The House of Delegates, which began experimenting with meeting online during special sessions last year, was firming up plans that called for holding virtual committee meetings every morning and convening floor sessions every afternoon at 4.

Republicans planned to execute a parliamentary move to restrict the duration of this year’s session to 30 days, instead of the customary 46 days in an odd-numbered year. Even-numbered years feature 60-day sessions.

Such a tactic “would be unprecedented, to be perfectly honest. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said Tuesday. “We need to be working overtime to address all of our challenges, we should not be trying to get out of town early.”

Her office said the short-year sessions have been extended by about two weeks for at least the past 50 years, under both major parties.

Filler-Corn ticked off a long list of legislative priorities for the session, including setting aside money to get coronavirus vaccines distributed more quickly; extending paid family sick leave; making health care more accessible and affordable; improving access to unemployment insurance; and supporting small businesses.

Sen. Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) echoed that list, and added “restoring as much money as we can to K-12 [education] and higher ed,” along with several criminal justice issues. “That’s going to keep us busy,” he said.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said Democrats already had more than 80 days in last year’s special legislative session to get things done, and argued that another 30 days should be enough to focus on issues related to the pandemic and economy.

“But it seems my colleagues on the other side have their own agenda that goes well beyond the pandemic,” he said, accusing Democrats of emphasizing issues such as legalizing marijuana to make “life a lot easier on criminals and a lot harder on police.”

Gilbert condemned the violence that took place at the U.S. Capitol last week after President Trump urged his followers to stand up against a presidential election that he falsely said was stolen from him. But Gilbert called for calm from his fellow lawmakers.

“Everybody needs to take a deep breath and really ratchet down the rhetoric,” he said. At the same time, he said a GOP priority will be “restoring confidence in our election system. I think what you saw last week was the culmination of a loss of confidence.”

Adding that he was “not talking about fraud” or “stealing elections,” Gilbert said that he felt laws passed last year by Democrats to increase access to voting — such as no-excuse early voting and removing the requirement of showing a photo ID to vote — had gone too far and undermined confidence in the system.

That remains a sensitive topic after the events of Jan. 6 — particularly in the Senate, where Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) has drawn ire from both parties for praising the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol as “patriots.”

The Senate Democratic Caucus called for her resignation, but members disagreed about whether to push for censure — a punishment the General Assembly has imposed only once before, in 1987, to then-Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk). He was censured for casting a vote that spared one of his legal clients from increased state regulation.

Chase has dismissed the criticism, saying Virginia Democrats had “committed treason” by loosening restrictions on voting last year.

With so many hot-button issues on the menu, Democrats said they were confident they could get around the Republican effort to hold the session to 30 days. Democratic leaders of the House and Senate were negotiating as late as Tuesday over how to keep the session going longer — such as by adjourning immediately and having Northam summon them back into special session, which would have no calendar limit.

A special session would also allow lawmakers to continue conducting political fundraising, which is prohibited during a regular session. That’s key because all 100 seats in the House are up for elections in November; senators next face the polls in 2023.

In addition, two senators and two delegates — plus Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who presides over the Senate — are running for governor, which is also on the ballot this fall. Five other lawmakers are running for lieutenant governor and two for attorney general. At least one more is mulling a run for federal office: Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) confirmed Friday that she is considering a challenge to Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) next year.

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