The House of Delegates and Senate may have settled their differences over how to operate the General Assembly session that begins on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean they are following the same path.
With a joint procedural resolution pending final agreement between Democratic leaders of the two chambers, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, unveiled a plan on Tuesday for the 100-member House to operate in an entirely virtual, online session because of public health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan, devised by House Clerk Suzette Denslow and her staff, is built around a technology-driven schedule for publicly convening the meetings of 14 standing committees and 43 subcommittees, with the entire House meeting in floor session at 4 p.m. each day.
The House will follow the schedule — made up of four, two-hour meeting blocks each day — until crossover on Feb. 5, the session’s procedural midpoint, after which it will have to reconcile to the operating plan of the Senate. The Senate will meet in person at the Science Museum and follow a more traditional legislative timetable. Crossover marks the end of each chamber’s work on its own bills, and the beginning of their review of the other chamber’s legislation.
Filler-Corn touted the House plan as more predictable and transparent for the public than before the Democrats took control of both chambers a year ago.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to hold the 2021 House legislative session virtually, I am committed to making it accessible and transparent,” the Speaker said in announcing the schedule on Tuesday. “Virginians will be able to view committee meetings and provide written testimony and also testify virtually, from every corner of the Commonwealth.
“The virtual session prioritizes the safety of legislators, professional staff, Capitol Police and communities across the Commonwealth, as we work to pass key legislation, to support families during this difficult time and continue building a better Virginia,” she said.
30 days or 46?
The session will begin with partisan warfare over its length. Sessions in odd-numbered years have been scheduled for up to 46 days since Virginia adopted a new state constitution in 1971. It required the assembly to meet for at least 30 days in odd-numbered years, in which the state is not adopting a new two-year budget.
House and Senate Republicans, frustrated by a long special session that concluded in November, have vowed to withhold their support for extending the session. The customary vote to extend the session requires support of two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.
“Our mantra has been that we had plenty of time during the special session to do all the little things they wanted to do, and they spent a lot of time making life a lot easier on criminals and a lot harder on police during the special session,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Tuesday.
“And so it seems like they’re not making the best use of their time, and it seems from their agenda, coming up, that they don’t really intend to focus on the things that need doing,” Gilbert said.
House Democrats will introduce a procedural resolution to conduct the customary 46-day session. If Republicans defeat it, Democrats will introduce a new procedural resolution with the operating rules for a 30-day session, with the expectation that Gov. Ralph Northam will call a special session to finish work on legislation and revisions to the two-year state budget.
Democrats will rely on a precedent that House Republicans set in 2012 when the House voted to carry legislation, including pending budget bills, over from the regular session into a special session that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, called that year.
“That’s all been worked out,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Tuesday.
The Republican avowal to hold the session to 30 days triggered a contentious debate among House and Senate Democrats on how best to respond. Filler-Corn has said she is prepared to require legislators to work seven days a week to finish the work within 30 days, but Senate Democratic leaders have pushed for a special session either at the beginning or end of the regular session.
The importance of a joint procedural resolution became apparent during a special session that began on Aug. 18, primarily to address a projected $2.7 billion shortfall in the budget because of the pandemic and criminal justice reforms that legislators proposed in response to public, sometimes violent protests over police treatment of Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities.
However, the Senate unanimously rejected the procedural resolution the House proposed despite lengthy negotiations between the leaders of the two chambers. The special session ultimately lasted 84 days, although the assembly was idle much of the time because of contrasting meeting schedules.
Access amid COVID-19
The assembly will convene Wednesday under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed one legislator and infected at least four others who recovered. Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, 60, died on New Year’s Day of complications from the coronavirus.
Chafin died the day after an expedited hearing in federal court over a lawsuit Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, filed to challenge the constitutionality of closing the Capitol and Pocahontas Building, where legislators have their offices, to the public during the session.
U.S. District Court Judge David J. Novak issued an order on Friday. It approved a mediated settlement reached after Denslow and Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar met with DeSteph and arranged space for legislators to meet with constituents in leased office space at the Bon Secours Training Center near the Science Museum.
Separately, the Senate Republican Caucus already had leased space in a building on West Broad Street for members to meet with constituents. “There needs to be some access to legislators when we’re making significant changes to Virginia’s policy framework,” caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said Tuesday.
In his order, Novak said he is “well-aware of the real and devastating threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and no question exists in the Court’s mind as to the seriousness of the concerns presented by the defendants in this case,” which included both clerks, the speaker and Senate Rules Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and the Division of Capitol Police.
The judge noted that DeSteph had acknowledged in his testimony the “dangers of the pandemic and the need for safeguards such as social distancing and the wearing of masks,” but also had testified that Chafin’s condition was “stable.” Chafin’s death the next day “is but one example of the unpredictable and devastating nature of this virus,” said Novak, who promised “zero tolerance” for any violations of the public health protocols included in the order.
The House plan Denslow and her staff devised attempts to balance public health precautions with the intricate scheduling demands of the legislative session and the need for the public to have full, live access to all committee and subcommittee meetings.
The plan required the House to expand its temporary staff by 32 positions, including 20 information technology specialists, to stream meetings from five legislative locations in the Capitol and the Pocahontas Building. Subcommittees and committees will meet in two-hour blocks — 7 to 9 a.m., 9 to 11 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 1 to 3 p.m.
The House Democratic and Republican caucuses will meet from 3 to 4 p.m., when the floor session will convene online. Full committees will be able to reconvene a half-hour after the floor session adjourns to continue their work on those days they are scheduled to meet.
However, Denslow said in an interview, “After crossover, we’ve got to get on the same schedule as the Senate.”