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Committees Control Outcome of Virginia’s Special Session

House of Delegates chamber
House of Delegates chamber Craig Carper/WCVE News

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is asking the GOP-controlled legislature to consider a package of gun control bills when they meet on July 9th.

But his success hinges on a small group of GOP lawmakers who control key committees, and who have traditionally shown no appetite for passing Democratic bills on to the broader legislature.

Northam and other Democrats argue that Republican leaders are sparing their caucus from taking votes on potentially controversial legislation by killing bills in committee. In some cases, Democrats believe they have the votes to pass bills with support of a few Republicans who represent swing districts.

To get around the impasse, Northam has urged GOP leaders to allow votes by the full House and Senate chambers. 

“Business as usual, with leadership shielding most of their members from taking tough votes by setting early morning hearings before a small subcommittees, won't cut it,” Northam said at a press conference earlier this month.

Bills generally go to committees or subcommittees before reaching the full chamber. But Virginia’s Constitution allows lawmakers to discharge a bill from committee and allow a floor vote with a simple majority vote -- a maneuver Democrats tried and failed to do earlier this year with the Equal Rights Amendment.

Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), said that Northam was asking Republicans to “skip the legislative process” without offering anything in return.

Slaybaugh accused Northam of being completely unreceptive to GOP proposals on public safety, pointing to the governor’s veto of a bill that would have increased mandatory minimum sentences. Northam announced at the time that he would veto all similar bills, saying they disproportionately impacted minorities.

“We would say, will he give up the veto pen and sign whatever we send him?” Slaybaugh said. “Why does compromise always mean just doing what the Democrats want?”

Lawmakers have yet to file any bills for the special session, though Northam has outlined a broad suite of gun control measures that includes an assault weapons ban and mandatory universal background checks.

Cox said earlier this month that his caucus will push proposals related to mandatory minimums and mental health. Republicans have also been renewing their calls for a special session against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is accused of sexual assault by two women.