Richmond, VA, United States (4E) – Democrats took control of the Virginia senate by voting 21-20 Tuesday to reorganize the chamber with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam giving the tie-breaking vote.
After Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack) was sworn in Tuesday to give his party the same 20 seats in the senate as Republicans, Northam’s vote tilted the majority in favor of the Democrats, who then moved to change the chairs and membership of 11 committees previously led by Republicans.
The changes also include Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) replacing Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) as president pro tempore and Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) becoming new majority leader. Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) became the chair of the powerful Rules Committee and Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) became chair of the Courts of Justice Committee.
Democrats gave themselves majorities in the different committees as they took 94 seats to the Republicans’ 75. Prior to the change, Republicans had 93 committee memberships to the Democrats’ 74. The Democrats were minorities in only the Local Government and Rehabilitation and Social Services committees.
With the reorganization, Democrats will have the ability to decide which legislation advances through the committee process and makes it to the Senate floor. It also made the Senate a counterbalance to the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.
It was not the first time that the lieutenant governor’s vote was used as tie-breaker to decide the majority bloc as Republicans used former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s vote to create the rules of the chamber in 2012 and gave the party control of crucial committees. But Republicans complained Tuesday that the rules of the Senate had never been changed midterm and the reorganization, by tradition, was not due until 2015 to coincide with the Senate election cycle.
Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said the precedent would allow his party to retake the majority if a Democrat is absent.